Greening up our act

by YES! Staff

Early adopters of environmentally sustainable practices face sometimes daunting up-front costs, but the long-term savings are often attractive. The business leaders, local governments and consumers of the Piedmont Triad are cautious innovators, not rushing into anything but not blind to the implications of seismic change either. So it goes with electric cars, which have only been on the market in the Triad for about a year. Consumers can choose from three — the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Fisker Karma — but Eric Ginsburg reports that only a few people here have taken the leap. But there are definite advantages for intrepid consumers. Meanwhile, the city of Winston-Salem has introduced a handful of solar-powered BigBelly trash compactors and has covered about 20 percent of its paid on-street parking with solar-powered pay stations. The trash compactors theoretically save the city on the cost of fuel for collection, but there aren’t enough to deployed to get any meaningful data. And the cost of replacing traditional trashcans and parking meters is steep, so the city is taking a go-slow approach. In housing, Karen Phillips reports that one student apartment complex, the Sterling Cottages at the West End in Greensboro, has taken the plunge with EnergyStar windows, low-flow water fixtures and shuttle service to UNCG. The cost of green building is coming down and building codes are coming up to green certification requirements, one industry leader says. In the end, as much as we might care about saving the planet we call home, saving money on a lifetime investment might be the most persuasive reason to go green.

 Electric cars

by Eric Ginsburg The concept and existence of electric cars is nothing new, but the option to own or lease one remained practically out of reach for Triad residents until a year ago, and despite a few options only a few people have taken the leap into the next wave of automobiles. With the number of charging stations increasing — there are already three in the Triad — rising gas prices, improvements in charging speed and a $7,500 federal tax rebate, the electric car industry could be poised to take off. For those hesitant about making the switch to a completely electric car, the flashy Fisker Karma in Winston-Salem or the Chevy Volt provide a hybrid option, both boasting up to 50 miles from an electric charge and the ability to hold around 10 gallons of gas. Meanwhile, the all-electric Nissan Leaf can travel about 100 miles on a full charge, and that’s not counting the energy generated by a small solar panel on the back of the roof. Driving the Volt, it’s impossible to notice the seamless transition from electric to gas, and if it wasn’t for small differences it wouldn’t be easy to tell the difference between it and a normal car. Both Volt and Leaf salesmen bragged about how quiet the cars run — the Volt even comes with a subtle “pedestrian horn” alerting people to the vehicle’s approach and the Leaf makes a sound reminiscent of a submarine using echolocation when it backs up that is hardly audible from the interior. Electric car owners will want to install a home charging station rather than rely on a slower, trickle charge that can plug into any outlet and that salesmen say uses the same amount of electricity as running a hairdryer. Josh Lewis at Crown Nissan, a Leaf specialist, said the complete cost of a charging station and installation runs around $2,000, but Lewis said there was a small tax break available for it as well if a customer buys through Nissan. The Leaf takes around seven hours to fully charge while the Volt takes around nine, but a quick charge is in the works that would take less than an hour. According to Volt specialist Jason Cappo at Terry Labonte Chevrolet, the Volt and the Leaf are the only two electric cars on the market in Greensboro. The cars overlap in several ways — an eco mode to reduce energy usage, the ability to sync a timer to the charger through a smartphone, side curtain airbags, the tax rebate, lithium ion cells that are more easily replaced than a hybrid battery, quick access without removing the key from a pocket, a power on button, plenty of head room, an electronic emergency break, a navigation system, the ability to generate more charge through breaking or coasting, an annual electricity cost estimated at $500 and a surprisingly gentle yet rapid acceleration. “It’s a quantum leap [from other cars],” Cappo said. Both float around $40,000 with the Volt running a little more expensive. The price tag covers a lot, and Cappo pointed out that the Volt was produced with federal funding to General Motors and has a comparably small profit margin. When the Volt is using premium gas it can get up to 37 miles per gallon, and it comes in a sport and mountain mode. Nissan did its best to make everything about the Leaf green, Lewis said, emphasizing that the car is built from recycled materials and that it is a zero-emissions vehicle. The solar panel on the luxury option charges a 12-volt battery to power all of the car’s interior functions, like the air conditioning and radio. LED lights indicate the level of charge in the battery, and the navigation system informs drivers of charging stations within range. “The vehicle has so much on it, it’s outrageous,” Lewis said, betraying some excitement. And he’s right. With a heated steering wheel, heated seats in the front and back and the ability to program climate control to come on remotely so it’s ready for a morning commute, the electric car with headlights like frog eyes is impressive. The four-seater Volt received 5-star safety ratings for front and side crashes as well as rollover, and even comes with knee airbags for the driver and front passenger seats. With the coefficient drag equivalent to a Corvet ZR1, it’s an impressive looking vehicle with an air-and-patch kit to fix a tire instead of a spare to cut down on weight. The Volt can travel more than three times the distance of the Leaf using electricity and gasoline, but backseat passengers have more legroom in the Leaf, in part thanks to what Nissan calls “stadium seating,” and the Leaf seats five. The Volt’s stereo doesn’t stop playing when the car is turned off until the driver’s door opens; the car comes with OnStar, and the charger is equipped to the car’s alarm in case someone tries to steal it without the key. Cappo has a fleet of Volts — around eight total — waiting to roll off the lot, while Crown Nissan seems slightly more cautious with only one Leaf on site. Yet the few people who have already purchased one are — for now — able to utilize Nissan’s charging station for free, a hassle that may be worth the offset cost. Lewis said inquiries have increased as gas prices rose over the last several months, that around 13,000 have been sold nationally, and likely more will hit the streets as quick-charge technology is rolled out — McDonald’s and Wal-Mart plan to install charge stations nationally and locally. Each car has its advantages, but both have a strong leg up on their gas-guzzling counterparts on the road. While electricity is often generated by coal, which is far from a green industry, and with Duke Energy rate hikes a constant threat and reality, even faster chargers and other advancements to decrease the required lifestyle changes of an electric car may keep green consumers looking for alternatives like mass transit or clamoring for electricity from cleaner sources.

Green building

by Karen Phillips ‘People want to do the right thing,” says Jerry Yudelson, who has been dubbed the “godfather of green” by Wired Magazine. Yudelson came to the Proximity Hotel in Greensboro last week to speak about green and sustainable practices and LEED certification for both old and new constructions. Yudelson is a member of the US Green Building Council, a nonprofit whose vision is a sustainably built environment within a generation. The organization is comprised of architects, builders, government employees, elected officials, engineers, students, teachers and other concerned citizens who design, build, own and operate buildings and have a vision for a more sustainable future. “There are millions of people out of work, but millions of jobs to fill,” Yudelson said. “There’s a skill mismatch.” Yudelson said building green will lead to an economic boom, so his goal is to educate people on the benefits of sustainability and LEED certification. The majority of buildings that will exist in the future are already here today, so he pushes not only for new green construction, but also for green renovation. Yudelson said 70 percent of all buildings will be renovated by 2035. Yudelson believes going green is “good common sense.” “The research is there — it’s solid,” he said. Green practices aren’t everywhere yet, “but it’s a trend that everyone’s gonna get on.” The Piedmont Triad is slowly entering the world of green practices. The Sterling Cottages at West End are green, off-campus student apartments that opened last summer. They are located about three miles away from UNCG at the intersection of Spring Garden Street and Merritt Drive. The community is LEED for Homes Gold Certified by the US Green Building Council. Staff members patrol the grounds on an electric golf cart. The community has a high-efficiency irrigation system, on-site recycling, a carpooling program set up for residents and an onsite shuttle bus to UNCG. They use paints and stains low in volatile organic compounds and recycled and eco-friendly construction materials. The units have EnergyStar windows and kitchen appliances, energy-saving, 42-inch plasma televisions, low-flow water fixtures and dual-flush toilets, energy-efficient lighting, energy-efficient air conditioning and heating units, and controlled fresh air ventilation systems. Ron Ricci, the chairman of the Triad Green Building Council, likes to say that “green built is better built.” The goal of the council is to educate local builders in the Triad about green building science and sustainability practices. “How are we going to make an impact on the planet,” he asked, “if we keep all the secrets to ourselves?” The council works to educate the general public how to lower consumption of fossil fuels, build healthier homes and businesses and improve water management and reduce consumption. The Triad Green Building Council primarily focuses on residential construction, while the US Green Building Council focuses more on commercial construction, but Ricci said the two organizations have just recently begun working together to expand education efforts within North Carolina. Members of the Triad Green Building Council build and renovate in accordance with the National Green Building Standard, which is a program for green certification, similar to LEED. National Green Building Council is an internationally recognized scoring standard for green and sustainable building practices. Homes can be certified bronze, silver, gold or emerald. Ron Ricci built the first home in NC to receive emerald status, located in Stokes County. So what about people who can’t afford to go green? According to Ricci and Yudelson, they can’t afford not to. Energy prices are not going down. “The smartest thing you can do is build a home that is energy efficient,” Ricci said. “Ten years from now when you go to sell your house and it’s not green certified, how will it compete with the house that is?” Ricci said the cost differential is coming down and building codes are catching up to green certification requirements. And what about people who don’t buy into the whole green and organic lifestyle? “You don’t have to carry your own cloth tote bag into Whole Foods to go green” Ricci defended. “Going green is about quality, not just about the trend.” Both Ricci and Yudelson said that green homes sell quicker than homes built to code — 9 percent more, according to research conducted by the University of California — and are on the market for shorter periods of time, according to smaller studies conducted in Seattle and Portland. Ricci says he is noticing a trend of green homes demanding higher sale prices and holding their value longer in the Triad. Both the US Green Building Council and the Triad Green Building Council suggest that whether you’re a green advocate, or just someone looking to buy smart and save money, green and sustainable buildings are the way of the future. Green buildings are built better: They have lower operating costs because they use less energy, and they have healthier interior environments that improve work habits and performance.

Solar municipal

 by Jordan Green One of the first encounters that Aaron Sookhoo, a prospective student visiting Winston-Salem from Tampa, Fla. last week to interview for Wake Forest University’s physician assistant program, had awith the city was sliding a credit card into the solar-powered parking pay station across the street from City Hall. His interview was scheduled the next day, so he wanted to take some time to look around downtown Winston-Salem. They have parking pay stations in Tampa, so Sookhoo is no stranger to the concept, but he said he appreciates the technological advance: The digital directions are simple to follow, the keypad is easy to use and customers don’t have to worry about transaction fees when they pay with credit cards. That you can use a credit card at all didn’t merit Sookhoo’s mention, but it’s probably worth noting that these are times when many urban adventurers go through life without quarters. Yes, there’s an ATM at the Wells Fargo building around the corner, but unless you’re a customer you will be saddled with a $2.50 withdrawal fee. And then you still have to go up the block to buy a soda at Subway to break the large bill. Not all encounters with the city’s parking pay stations are so positive. One frustrated driver who tried to park on East 1st Street on the south side of City Hall found that when he opted to pay by the hour the machine automatically selected 111 hours for him. Then, when he pressed cancel, the screen went blank. He gave up and moved his car to another block. The station is visible from Assistant City Manager Greg Turner’s window. When informed of the problem by a reporter, Turner took out a legal pad, scribbled a quick note and promised to get it taken care of. Turner is responsible for both the parking pay stations and BigBelly trash compactors, two advanced-technology devices that are powered by the sun and that have been installed in the past couple years. The first BigBelly was installed at the corner of 1st and Church streets, also within view of Turner’s office, in December 2009. A solar panel collects energy for a battery that powers a motor to compact the trash, allowing the container to collect more trash than a regular can. The battery also powers a sensor that transmits a signal when the container is full so that the city’s sanitation workers know exactly when to make a collection stop. The overall result is reduced fuel use. “We wondered how long it would take to give the alert,” Turner recalled. “It took awhile because I guess at first people didn’t know what it was and didn’t throw their trash in there. Eventually, they got comfortable with it.” The trash compactors and parking pay stations were each introduced to address different challenges. In the case of the trash compactors, solar panels are part of the product. As for the parking pay stations, Turner said including solar panels allowed the city to avoid tearing up the sidewalks to run electrical lines. Also, the energy requirements to spit out a paper receipt and power a digital screen are relatively low, so the city would probably have had to pay Duke Energy more in minimal fees than what the actual use was worth. The thought process behind replacing traditional parking meters — mechanical devices that operate like wind-up clocks — with digitized parking pay stations represents a hybrid study of traffic engineering and human behavior unique to the personality and disposition of municipal managers. Turner said staff observed that cars with handicapped placards occupied the on-street parking spaces the entire day. In some cases the numbers on the placards did not match the license plate numbers, leading staff to suspect that government employees were abusing the arrangement so they could park closer to their workplaces instead of using parking garages. With the parking pay station, all users — handicapped or otherwise — are required to pay, but can choose to rent the space by the hour or all day. The new arrangement was designed to provide more flexibility to users and to improve circulation. “Before we brought in the new parking pay stations, every single space was filled at 7:30 a.m. — before businesses opened,” Turner said. “Now, if you come down at 8 a.m. every single space is available, but if you come back from 8:30 to 9 when business starts, every space is filled. That’s when we knew that the process was doing what it was supposed to.” The motivation to purchase the BigBelly trash compactors was the ugliness of standard trashcans, and the fact that the open containers attract bees, mosquitoes, rats and other disease-bearing critters, Turner said. In contrast, the trash compactors are enclosed. The compaction allows them to hold five times as much as a standard trash can, resulting in an 80 percent savings on fuel costs for the city’s fleet of garbage trucks. Similarly, each parking pay station covers an entire block, saving the need to service about 15 traditional parking meters. Turner estimated that about 20 percent of the city’s paid on-street parking is covered by the new pay stations, mainly in the governmental complex. The city has a handful of trash compactors. Turner said the city will probably gradually add more in areas with high pedestrian traffic. The new parking pay stations and trash compactors don’t cover enough of the city for staff to determine a net cost savings overall. “Both cost more than the traditional method in initial, up-front cost, but they give you a better service,” Turner said. “We like them.”