Green your life at home, work & play

Passive Homes April 26, 2012

What is a passive home, and what does it have to do with environmental sustainability? A passive home or passivaus in German, is a house (any building can be passive with the correct planning) that is specifically made to be highly energy efficient, have a dramatically reduced carbon footprint, and a requirement of little to no extra energy for heating or cooling.

This idea began in the 90’s in Germany and quickly became more than just an idea. Two years after the two pioneers, Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, had the first conversation about this idea, they had already built a set of four row houses in Darmstadt, Germany with the help of Bott, Ridder and Westermeyer architectural firm. This first set of row houses surpassed any expectation at the time, with energy costs being 80% less than standard houses built the same year. This is also when the Passive House Institute was created, which has helped spread the concept.

Instead of relying on the energy grid for power, a passive house uses the sources of energy surrounding it, such as sunlight, body heat, wind-power, ground heat (geo-thermal) and even the energy released in everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning and using appliances to heat in the winter and cool in the summer. The defining equipment in any passive home is the mechanical ventilation system. Since these homes have to be airtight, they need to be able to let in fresh air for occupants and release old air containing noxious gases and CO2.

The building envelope in these structures is truly remarkable; the walls are filled with extra thick insulation to minimize any chance of thermal bridging (heat loss). The windows are infra-red reflecting, vacuum sealed, triple glazed, triple pained and finally pumped full of the noble (colorless) gas, argon. This gas is heavier than air and acts as a better insulation against heat from solar radiation. The awnings on these homes are built to take advantage of the lower sunlight in the winter, and the higher sunlight in the summer. In some cases, the homes are so energy efficient that they sell extra energy from solar panels to the city or county energy grid; in fact, they get paid to do this. One builder in Germany, Rolf Disch, has built a set of homes that earn, on average, $5,075 per year. Typical homes in this area of Germany spend $4,500 and up on energy. Such a saving can really make an impact on a homeowner’s annual income and yearly spending. The positive aspect of saving money is enough for most people but for the more environmental conscious, the reduction in their carbon footprint is almost indomitable.

In 2010, there were over 25,000 certified passive homes in Europe , but only 13 of these homes in the US. The vast majority of passive houses have been built in German-speaking countries and Scandinavia. However, in the last two years, the amount of passive homes in the US has nearly quadrupled, due to higher energy costs and the stimulus packages that have been made available for “green building” through the Obama administration. The International Passive House Institute also provides additional information, as the US branch of Passive House. We hope this trend continues, as the homes are more energy efficiency that Energy Star and LEED certified homes – though these, too, are a great step in the right direction.


Lego Going Green March 23, 2012

Denmark based Lego Group is investing over $500 million in green energy over the next four years. The worlds’ third largest toy manufacturer owned by family investment firm Kirkbi A/S is famous for their iconic multi-colored, plastic building blocks. Lego Group was started in 1932 by Ole Kirk Christiansen, who was a carpenter in western Denmark. Upon losing his job, Christiansen started making wooden toys instead of furniture. After a fire broke out in his factory, he was forced to rebuild and decided to start out making miniature versions of houses and furniture he has worked on as a carpenter. He switched to plastic in 1947 and by 1949 had built over 200 plastic toys. Christiansen came up with “Lego” for a company name; lego is derived from the Danish words “leg godt” meaning “play well”.

The company will be purchasing a 32% stake in DONG Energy’s newest wind farm, Borkum Riffgrund 1. This wind farm is located 55 km off the north-west coast of Germany in the North Sea and will have a capacity of close to 300 MW. This is enough power to supply nearly 330,000 households annual power consumption, and best of all, it is carbon dioxide free energy.  Construction on the project will begin in 2013 and will be ready to start producing by 2015. Lego and its parent company plan to have their investment in Borkum Riffgrund producing more energy than they will use up to and including 2020. Chief Executive of Kirkbi A/S, Soren Thorup Sorenson, stated that this is the first time that the firm has invested directly in alternative energy and it will undoubtedly provide a long term investment with reasonable return. This power will not be provided directly to the Lego manufacturing plants but instead be directed to the German power grid. Lego has manufacturing plants in Denmark, Mexico, The Czech Republic and Hungary.

Lego Company CEO Jorgen stated in a release on Lego’s website in mid-February, “One of our fundamental values is to enable future generations of children to grow up in a better world. We do that first and foremost through our play materials — but also by improving the safety of our employees, improving the energy efficiency of our production, and reducing the volume of waste. In the field of renewable energy our objective is an ambitious one — and I am very pleased at this time to be able to announce this investment. We’re on a journey, a never-ending journey — but the investment in renewable energy is a huge step in the right direction.”

Lego is just one of many companies that have a huge impact on our children and it is extremely exciting to see that they are putting forth a great effort to make this world a better place for our posterity.


US EPA Green Power Partnership December 29, 2011

As awareness about volatile energy prices, our energy supply’s impact on national security, and energy consumption’s impact on climate change grows, renewable energy is presenting itself as a strong alternative to nonrenewable fossil fuels.  Many members of the US business community have recognized the economic benefits of turning to renewables, as evidenced by the growth of the US EPA’s Green Power Partnership program.

The Green Power Partnership program works with organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to government entities and universities.  Partner organizations represent national leaders in green power purchasing and purchase green power through (1) Renewable Energy Certificates, (2) on-site generation, and (3) utility green power products.
wind power
The US EPA has released its list of top 50 green power purchasers through the Green Power Partnership program.    Visit the EPA website to see the full list of organizations.

The Green Power Partnership proves that it is possible for US companies to derive their energy from clean and renewable resources.  Washington, DC is the leading community in the US for green power purchasing.  In DC, government, institutions, businesses, and individuals purchase 8% of the community’s power from green sources.

Businesses that are interested in purchasing greener power that do not have local access to green power sources can purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs).  RECs are credits that represent a certain amount of energy that has been produced from renewable sources.  Businesses that purchase RECs receive credit for the green power purchase.  The US Department of Energy website explains how RECs work and how they can be acquired.

If you think RECs are too expensive for your organization, think again. In deregulated states, you can lock in a price and add RECs on top, and still save money compared to what you would have been paying otherwise.


Majority of U.S. Adults Support Solar and Wind Energy October 10, 2011

Solar PanelsBetween fossil fuel pollution and volatile energy prices, a common question arises: what is the future of clean, renewable energy?  For renewable energy to have a chance in the U.S., it needs strong support from the general public.  Two recent studies show that the required support may already be here.

A survey conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by solar energy company Sungevity found that 71% of U.S. adults are fearful of rising energy costs.  Concurrently, 74% of those surveyed feel that solar power should be the energy source of the future for the residential sector.  Please visit Sungevity’s website for more information about the company.

A survey from Pike Research has reached similar conclusions.  According to the Pike study, 79% of U.S. adults are “very favorable” or “favorable” towards solar energy.  75% of respondents supported wind energy as well.  See the full study for further details.

Support for wind and solar is growing, but it will be interesting to see what impact citizen interest and support will have on the development of clean, renewable energy in the U.S.


Google leads Apple in the Race to Sustainability June 29, 2011

Google and Apple are two of the biggest names in the computing world today, and they compete in everything from phones to tablet computers. In the past year, Android, Google’s phone operating system, has taken a large share of the market away from the ubiquitous iPhone. But these two giants have also started to compete in another part of their business: sustainability performance and reporting.


Earlier this year I wrote a blog post on the Consumer Electronics Show and the release of their 2010 CEA Sustainability Report. Apple was featured in the report as a case study for sustainable product design. CEA commended them for being the first in the industry to complete a comprehensive life cycle analysis for every product that Apple ships to determine where its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions came from. This analysis helped Apple to see that 97% of its GHG emissions are directly associated with its products (e.g. manufacturing, customer use) and only 3% are due to facilities. Knowing where a business’s emissions are coming from is a crucial first step to any improvement plan. Apple’s Environment page includes a helpful graphic that breaks down each life cycle stage of a product an the relative impact on the environment.

Since most of Apple’s emissions are from their products, their focus has been on designing their products to use less material. According to their website, their iPod classic achieved a 50% reduction in carbon emissions between 2001 and 2010. They also have used smaller packaging techniques to increase transportation efficiency. And in regard to their product use category, which accounts for 46% of their total carbon emissions, Apple has designed every single product to meet the government’s Energy Star guidelines.

Although facilities only account for 3% of Apple’s total carbon emissions, they have still been making some improvements. Most impressive is the fact that three locations (Austin Texas; Sacramento, California; Cork, Ireland) are 100% powered by renewable energy. They’ve also begun offering a biodiesel commuter coach to some employees, currently only used by up to 800 Apple employees per day.

In January, Apple was awarded a patent for a solar-powered portable device. Although this is just a “step in the green direction” and many other patents and existing products are already out there for solar-powered charging techniques, it’s still a smart step and a strong example for others to follow. As a leader in the electronics market, whatever Apple does will cause others to take notice.

Another possible move is the development of some of Apple’s commercial real estate in Cupertino. Apple has reportedly hired Forster + Partners for the design, a well-known design firm that pays particular attention to green issues such as using renewable energy resources and incorporating the best energy-efficiency techniques into materials and equipment.


Google has been making great efforts to improve their data centers. Their data center page gives a helpful overview and explains efficient computing, how their measure their data center efficiency (a Power Usage Effectiveness metric), their Server Retirement Program to maximize machine reuse, data center best practices, and notes from the Efficient Data Center Summit held in 2009. (They also mention their plans to attend a European Data Centre Summit this week in Switzerland).

Just like Apple, Google also uses biodiesel shuttles to help their employees commute to work in a more eco-friendly way. Google claims to drive “thousands of employees” in their shuttles every day — certainly higher than Apple’s 800. Google also supports employees that choose a carbon-free commute (e.g. cycling, walking) by donating to their favorite charities based on how often they self-power their commute. Google’s green operations page details several other initiatives, including the use of goats for grass grazing (instead of lawnmowers), details of their carbon offsets, the Climate Savers Computing initiative, participation in the Green Power Market Development Group, their LEED-certified office in San Francisco, and the use of Energy Star-rated office equipment.

Google’s green innovation page highlights some of their more creative projects. The Google PowerMeter is a free energy monitoring tool that allows you to view your home’s energy consumption online. Tracking your energy is a great tool to help you reduce energy use, but right now the PowerMeter is only available in a few areas in the U.S. and Europe. Google has invested over $38 million into two North Dakota wind farms, and they’ve agreed to invest in the Atlantic Wind Connection project. Since renewable energy projects (e.g. wind, solar) require expensive capital, it’s important to have investments like this to get them started.

Other long-term projects from Google include Enhanced Geothermal Systems and related investments to geothermal energy research (Potter Drilling, AltaRock Energy, Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab, and Stanford University). And the RE<C project is aimed at taking calculated financial risk to accelerate clean energy down the cost curve. The goal is to help make renewable energy (RE) cheaper than coal (C), hence the name RE<C.

Overall, it’s great to see these two companies making concentrated efforts to reduce their carbon footprints and both have made some significant progress. Both Apple and Google continue to redesign their products (in Google’s case, data centers) and facilities using a variety of methods and practices. But it’s Google’s commitment to long-term projects such as renewable energy investments and home energy use monitoring that really gives them the edge in the race to sustainability.

Image sources: and


Watt do you know about clean energy? April 14, 2010

Think you know what clean energy is? The terms “clean energy, green power, renewable energy, alternative energy” are thrown around a lot.  But what do they really mean?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Clean energy includes energy efficiency and clean energy supply options like highly efficient combined heat and power as well as renewable energy sources.”  Energy Star defines renewable energy as “electricity generated from resources such as the sun, wind, geothermal, biomass, and low-impact hydro facilities.”  In other words if your energy comes from a renewable resource and doesn’t give off CO2 emissions, it’s clean!

Most power companies in the US already use some form of clean energy to provide you with your electricity at home.  Find out how your company compares to the national average just by inputting your zip code.

Some states have also elected to give consumers green pricing choices, which sometimes run at premium to traditional prices.  In some states, the EPA has recognized some key areas as “green power communities.” In Gresham, Oregon, the number of green power users grew from about 900 to over 1,200 users in a short time.  Today the community gets over 15% of its electricity from green power.

Despite efforts of communities like Gresham and other individuals and businesses who seek out clean energy, only 3% of the nation’s energy needs are met by renewable resources.  Some people shy away from it because it seems too cumbersome or expensive to make the switch. However, a transition to renewable energy may be easier than you think.  Check to see if your local provider has a green pricing option or buy Renewable Energy Certificates (REC). A REC doesn’t exactly bring renewable energy to your home or business but it does ensure that one megawatt hour or 1,000 kilowatt hours worth of renewable energy is contributed to your regional power supply grid.  If you decide to buy RECs make sure your provider is selling certified RECs.

The benefits of buying RECs are not only that you are helping reduce emissions, but also include a contribution towards further development of renewable power by increasing renewable energy revenues.

Furthermore, according to a study from U.S. Department of Energy, if the U.S. were to supply 20% of its energy from wind power by 2030, 7,600 million metric tons of Co2 emissions would be avoided and four trillion gallons of water saved.  The costs of implementing this scenario would be fifty cents per month per household.

If you think you’re ready to take a step toward clean energy or just learn more, visit


Is your home ready for solar power? October 2, 2008

The approval of a $17 billion bill in tax credits for wind, solar, geothermal and ocean energy system as part of the proposed bailout makes the future of renewable energy look promising to normal residents. Solar, as a clean and abundant resource, is obtaining significant policy support to become one of the major clean energy alternatives of residential use. If enacted, this bill will:

  • Extend tax credits by eight years for residential and commercial solar systems.
  • Give a 30-percent tax credit to homeowners who install solar systems and businesses that install solar systems.

How can households use solar power?

You may have heard about solar power but thought it too ‘high tech’ or expensive for your own home. Though it can be expensive, there are many instances where it pays to use solar power. As an abundant resource of energy, solar power can be used for home heating, cooling and water heating. Using photovoltaic (PV) energy systems to convert the solar power to electricity can even produce enough electricity for the household to cut your electricity bill. So, how do those systems work for homes? There are several demonstrated technologies you may want to look into:

  • Solar Water Heaters – uses storage tanks and solar collectors to collect the solar power to heat the water used in buildings and swimming pools. The most common collector is called a flat plate collector, which usually has a thin, flat, rectangular box on the roof of the building with a transparent cover facing the sun. The plate is painted black to absorb the heat and then is transferred through tubes carrying fluid attached to the box. Other types of solar water heaters include evacuated-tube solar collectors, integral collector-storage systems, etc.

  • Small Solar Electricity Systems – also called solar cells or photovoltaic (PV) systems by solar cell scientists, can be a reliable electricity producer for your home. It coverts sunlight directly into electricity and works similar to small solar cells that are used to power calculators and watches. However, PV works to larger extent by combing 40 cells into a single module and 10 modules into a single PV array. Those PV arrays then can be mounted on a tracking device to capture the sunlight during the day. About 10 to 20 PV arrays can provide enough power for a household.

  • Passive Solar Home Design – takes advantage of the local climate by designing windows, walls and floors to collect and store the solar power in the form of heat and distribute it for household use in the winter, while blocking sun heat in the summer.

There are currently programs that enable you to rent solar panels and have them placed on your roof. Citizenre is the first company to offer these services but, if proven, others will likely follow suit. In addition, the break even point for solar thermal is less than 10 years – in some cases just 5 to 7 years, so it is increasingly affordable, especially with rising energy costs. The Department of Energy (DOE) provides comprehensive introductions for solar power technologies and guides for consumers on assessment, installation, and maintenance. More details about the technology can be also found on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory website.


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