California pours a foundation for cities to build low carbon future.

12/4/2010 Guardian Going carbon neutral: State governments are beginning to set the stage for widespread climate action with emissions laws, energy efficiency rules and renewable energy standards, but the hands-on work of actually achieving carbon-neutral status is happening in cities.Let’s look at California as an example. The state is leading the nation down the
green path overall, adopting statewide policies that encourage residents to
reduce their carbon footprints and change their wasteful ways.
It is implementing the first-ever law that uses regulatory and market mechanisms
to reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions. AB 32, or the California Global
Warming Solutions Act of 2006, is expected to reduce carbon emissions to 1990
levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050. But that’s only the start.
Another law, AB 375, sets GHG targets for different regions and connects land
use with AB 32 goals by offering a roadmap for halting urban sprawl. Signed by
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2008, it encourages cities to adopt a general plan
with a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) that requires new development to
be near transit or clustered with existing development. Cities are not required
to adopt the SCS, but only those that do will be eligible for a share of the
state’s $6 billion annual transportation budget. It also exempts qualifying
smart-growth projects from the state’s onerous environmental review process.
Faced with California’s GHG mandate, many local governments have already
implemented green building standards for public and commercial projects, as well
as programs designed to conserve resources and reduce waste and GHG emissions.
Santa Monica, Pasadena and Los Angeles, for example, have adopted “green”
building ordinances that require new and renovated public and commercial
buildings to meet criteria for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) Silver rating.
Attorney Elizabeth Watson, a partner at the Los Angeles law firm Greenberg
Luster, which specializes in land use, notes that cities started by imposing
LEED standard on themselves before requiring them in the private sector. She
predicts that local governments will eventually require existing buildings to be
upgraded to sustainable standards, too.
Los Angeles has already begun sustainable retrofits on its own buildings, Watson
notes. Once the city determines a sustainable upgrade is reasonable to expect,
it is likely to make sellers upgrade buildings to LEED standards before changing
This concept got a shot in the arm last year with California requiring building
owners to disclosure a building’s energy rating to prospective buyers and
renters. While this policy is intended as a “buyer beware” statue, the state is
using this information to create a database of building energy use.
The idea is that if building owners are forced to disclose this information
periodically or when a property is sold or leased, they will upgrade the
building’s energy systems to improve marketability, says Toni Liou, a principal
at Los Angeles-based Partner Energy, an energy consulting firm that works with
building owners and users to improve a building’s energy rating.
Updates to California’s new Title 24 building energy efficiency standards, which
came online Jan.1, also increased building energy performance standards, as well
as water conservation and waste reduction requirements for all types of
projects. For instance, 75% of water heated for swimming pools must be from
solar, native plants must be used for landscaping, and 65% of waste must be
The state also was first to offer PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy), a
municipal solar finance program that enables home and building owners to install
solar energy without any upfront costs and repay the loan over 20 years with
savings from electric bills. It launched the Million Solar Roofs Initiative,
which provides $2.9 billion in incentives for home and building owners who
install solar electric systems. It also increased the amount of excess
electricity utilities must buy back from owners of rooftop solar systems. Its
Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) calls for 20 percent of California’s energy
to come from renewable energy sources by 2010.
Cities Lead the Way
While the states are laying the foundation for sustainability, it is
forward-thinking cities that are the leading the way toward true zero-emissions
development, in California and elsewhere.
Cities have the flexibility to lead because they have the greatest control over
sustainability processes, explains Claire Bonham-Carter, a principal and
director of Sustainable Development, Design and Planning in the San Francisco
office of AECOM who is developing Climate Action Plans (CAPs) for several
California cities.
San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, Portland and Boulder have all
developed Climate Action Plans that outline strategies to bring down greenhouse
gas emissions and prepare for climate change.
So far, Austin, Texas, is the only U.S. city that has formally committed to
going carbon neutral, but a number of projects attempting to reach the same goal
are under way or proposed. The economic downturn has created challenges for
many, delaying some of their grandest plans, but projects are still in the
For example, Quay Valley is a proposed $25-billion, 13,172-acre new city of
150,000 people in central California that would produce all of its power with
renewable energy technologies. That would include 100 solar arrays, wind
turbines and geothermal to help with efficiency, according to Dustin Watson, a
LEED-certified architect and vice president at Baltimore-based Developers Design
Group, master planner for the project.

  “We’re starting to see clients like this one in California pushing the
  envelope,” Watson says.
In New Mexico, Mesa del Sol, a 12,900-acre sustainable master-planned community
under way south of Albuquerque, will utilize regionally available renewable
energy resources to eventually power 37,000 residential units and 18 million
square feet of commercial space.
In fact, developers plan to make alternative energy technology the community’s
primary economic driver and has already attracted two world-class solar energy
companies. New Mexico is a national leader in alternative energy research, one
of the highest concentrations of Ph.D.-level scientists in the nation. Both
Sandia National Laboratory, just minutes from Mesa del Sol, as well as Los
Alamos National Laboratory are focused on sustainable energy research.
The federal government is also moving forward. The largest net-zero commercial
building in the nation is under way in Golden, Colo. The $64-million,
218,000-square-foot building home for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory
(NREL), a unit of the U.S. Department of Energy, will consume so little energy
that it won’t need to draw a single electron from the grid.
According to project manager Eric Telesmanich, this high-performance, LEED
platinum building will attain net-zero status through conservation and
alternative energy production. The goal is to limit energy use to no more than
32,000 BTUs per square foot a year, so that the one-megawatt solar array on the
NREL campus meets all the building’s energy requirements. The typical commercial
building in Colorado requires 65,000 BTUs per square foot annually.
Getting to Net Zero
Getting to net zero energy requires a closed-loop system, where everything
onsite is used to produce energy, which is the way energy production is going in
future, notes Dustin Watson.

  “What it boils down to is the most cost-effective way to get there,” he says,
  pointing out that the process begins with the free stuff, like taking
  advantage of natural breezes and daylighting, then applies conservation to
  decrease demand, and lastly introduces technologies for onsite energy
Ideally, each community someday will operate on its own micro-grid system that
derives energy from different sources, so that when one system has downtime the
others pick up the slack, he explains. “It would be great if everyone’s house
produced its own energy, and whatever isn’t used goes on a local grid for use by
other buildings.
  “There’s lots of possibilities out there for the future. It’s an exciting time
  to be in this business,” he adds. “Things are happening so fast, it’s a full
  job just keeping up.”

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