We’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of the dedication of San Antonio’s first Solar Power Station. Designed as an educational installation, this modest (by today’s standards) 14 kilowatt photovoltaic array was installed on the grounds of the Institute of Texan Cultures (operated by the University of Texas at San Antonio) in downtown San Antonio. On November 19th, 2003, dignitaries arrived to throw the switch that allowed solar energy produced by the installation to be fed into the CPS Energy grid for the first time. The photos that accompany this post are taken during the final days of construction and on opening day when the first group of school children were introduced to the basics of solar energy. The building that housed the inverter and other equipment also included three interactive windows describing solar energy and indicating how much energy was being produced at that time along with another readout that indicated how much energy that the system would produce at the same time under ideal conditions. That way, if the actual energy output was half of the ideal output, those who were looking at the display could then determine the impact of atmospheric conditions accounting for the energy drop.
I would have liked to go out to the Solar Power Station on the 10th anniversary of its dedication to see how much energy had been provided to the city over the past ten years, but I found out that recently the installation was demolished. Very few knew about the demise of the Solar Power Plant, but no one had apparently fought to save it. I have been able to piece some of the back story though. A few years ago, UTSA had sold the parking lot of the Institute including the portion of the grounds where the Solar Power Station was installed to a private company. At that time, CPS Energy made attempts to remove the installation in order to locate it elsewhere and continue it’s educational role. Relocation efforts were halted by UTSA, and very recently, the new owners of the property decided to take the Solar Power Plant down. I still have not found out what happened to the 198 panels, the inverter, or the educational boxes, but I hope they will be able to continue producing energy wherever they are.
Worried about pollination of flowers? If not, you should be. If not for pollination, much of the food that gets to our table would not arrive. Remember too, that if you don’t eat much in the way of fruits, vegetables, and grains, don’t forget that the cows, pigs, and chickens that you eat do. Nature is full of pollinators, including birds and moths. Arguably, the most important of these are the bees. And bee populations are in trouble.
What can you do to support the bees (and by doing so support you and your family)? If you have no idea, the first thing you can do is to come to the San Antonio Sustainable Living regular monthly meeting tomorrow evening (Tuesday) and find out what can be done.
Our presenter tomorrow is Walter Schumacher of Central Texas Honey Bee Rescue [can be found at honeybeekind.com ]. Walter is one of the premier supporters of our bee friends in Central and South Texas. His company rescues bees that happen to establish their hives where humans don’t want them and he organizes a network of independent beekeepers in a Co-op of sorts marketing some of the best honey that you might ever taste. He knows about the conventional bee and honey business and knows about the hype of “killer” bees. If you happened to hear his tent talk at this year’s Renewable Energy Roundup in Fredericksburg, you know what an informative and entertaining font of knowledge Walter truly is. Maybe it’s because he’s been stung a few times. Oh, and he also knows about the benefits of bee stings and how it’s different than just being injected by bee venom.
I know I’ve said this before, but this is one meeting you will NOT want to miss. Hope to see you at 7pm in the classroom inside Whole Foods Market in the Quarry Shopping Center. Oh, he will not be able to sell any of his honey tomorrow night, but you are encouraged to ask our local Whole Foods Markets to carry the Honey Bee Kind honey in San Antonio as they do in Austin.
Set your calendars also for November’s program (on the 26th) when we bring back Kent Rabon who makes the fabulous Greenstar Blox [ masongreenstar.com ]. There will be no meeting in December, but we’re planning on coming back for our 2014 season in January.
Austin Highway Then and Now [Click on the title to access the photo]
I cross this bridge almost every day. I found a photo of this bridge posted on “Back in the Day San Antonio” Facebook page and was told the location. I was intrigued since I recognized the location even after the passage of approximately 100 years. Years ago, I came across a map of San Antonio from 1935 and it indicated this bridge was on the primary road between San Antonio and Austin. In the sepia photo, you can see that a car coming in from Austin would approach the photographer and cross the Salado Creek concrete bridge and continue toward the photographer crossing in front of him and disappearing off the right side of the photo. The photo is pointing northeast. On today’s map, that old road, just off the right of the photo is called Corrine today. Corrine can be seen blending into today’s Harry Wurzbach Road leading further southwest toward Fort Sam Houston Army post. This was the 1935 prime road just outside San Antonio on the way to Austin. Today, there’s the Austin Highway which was the main road sometime after 1935 and continued to be the main road until Interstate Highway 35 was completed bypassing all of this on the way to downtown SA. The Austin Highway “new” bridge is shown in the color photo on the left.
Yesterday, I tried to find the spot where the sepia photo was taken and took a shot or two with my phone. Amazed at the way transportation routes and cameras have changed in a hundred years, it was just as amazing to see the old Salado Creek bridge still in use. Who knows the number of countless floods that have completely submerged this bridge over the decades? And still it survives. Granted, the amount of traffic today is dwarfed by the traffic crossing the “new” Salado Creek bridge on the left side of the color photo, but the old bridge is a testament to what may have been one of the first reinforced concrete bridges in Bexar County still in use. If you take the time to cross the bridge on foot, you can see indications of where old railing or road signs were once attached. You can also see in the middle of the bridge places where the reinforcing steel (re-bars) is now exposed to the surface.
The other day, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts on my daily 12 mile bike ride that always includes this bridge. The podcast is called “99% Invisible” by Roman Mars. I highly recommend this podcast to anyone interested in obscure and fascinating stories about things that have been forgotten or unappreciated. It’s design-oriented and is my favorite podcast. Last week, I was listening to Roman Mars describing an early example of a reinforced concrete tunnel/bridge at the edge of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco called the Alvord Lake Bridge. It may be the first reinforced concrete structure in America and today looks quite neglected, but still functional. Please go to the 99% Invisible website and read or listen to Episode 81 for the story of the bridge, reinforced concrete, and how an extremely large amount of our country’s infrastructure is neglected reinforced concrete structures that need to be maintained or removed as reinforced concrete does not last forever.
Back to the story on the Alvord Lake Bridge, Roman Mars mentioned that an early innovator in reinforced concrete, E.L. Ransome registered a copyright on twisting bars of steel, now known as “rebar” to improve the adhesion of the concrete to the steel. I learned in architecture school that the elegant success of reinforced concrete is dependent on the duet between concrete and steel. First, they bond very well to each other (and interestingly, even a little bit better if the steel has a thin coat of rust) and most importantly, steel and concrete have the same thermal expansion coefficient. In other words, they shrink in the cold and stretch in the heat at the same length per degree temperature! If they didn’t they would quickly break their bond. I don’t want to give you the impression that rust is great. It’s beneficial only in small amounts and only when the concrete is cast with the steel. Once cast, care must be given to insure moisture does not penetrate the concrete or the steel does not have a connection with the ground. If these things happen, rust can become a problem that can lead to the structure’s destruction.
I noticed the exposed reinforcing steel on the old Salado Creek bridge was twisted. It was not easy to determine whether the steel was a twisted square bar or a twisted steel ribbon, but it seemed to relate to what I had heard on the podcast regarding E.L. Ransome’s patent over a century ago. Today’s reinforcing steel is different. Instead of being twisted, today’s rebar features ribs on round steel to provide a good grip with concrete. I know there’s not much regarding a “lesson” with this post. I was just struck by realizing the age of this old bridge I ride on every day and being reminded about the historic story of reinforced concrete thanks to 99% Invisible and Roman Mars.
At the end of 2012, Richard Seager and others at the Columbia University Earth Institute released a paper describing their findings based on climate trends and forecasting models. The report says that in many areas of the Southwest, including Texas, winter precipitation will decrease through the year 2040. This is particularly problematic for snows in the cascades which is a major source of water for irrigation as well as potable use in California from snowmelt. In Texas, drier winter and spring soils also cause problems due to less surface water and moist soils available for evaporation which in turn provides upper level moisture necessary for rainfall. In summary, the report suggests that Texans should expect about a ten percent drop in precipitation through 2040. We can expect dry years like what we experienced from late 2010 through late 2011. Prudence would dictate that we adjust our use of water and expectation of water sources accordingly. For those of us who are planning to install a rainwater harvesting system, I suggest an increase in both the collection surface area and cistern capacity would be in order. In rural areas, rainwater cistern planning should also design for an emergency fire supression reservoir (which could be the lower section of one of your cisterns) complete with a fitting similar to a fire hydrant fitting that will be compatible with your local volunteer fire department equipment. Droughts are likely to provide ideal conditions for wildfire, so having a fire supression reservoir could make the difference in saving your property.
San Antonio TEDx talks are now here! http://bit.ly/fjdDaw It was an honor to be chosen as one of the first group of people to give TEDx presentations in San Antonio in October of this year. Todd O’Neill and the entire TEDx San Antonio organizing crew did an absolutely amazing job organizing the event including the pre-event get-togethers, the rehearsal, the event itself, and the post-event party! And now, Todd and company has edited and uploaded the talks on YouTube. What an eclectic mix of presenters and presentations! These are some amazing people. Go to the link and learn some very interesting things and points of view from here in San Antonio. Let me know what you think. It was fun.
I’ve been a big fan of earthen construction for many years, and stacked a few dirt blocks in the past ten years or so, but it wasn’t until about eight weeks ago in early November when I actually got my feet muddy helping some others start building cob walls for a small accessory building in Austin. Gayle Borst and the gang of Design~Build~Live natural building fans had organized the event, and it continues one cob of clay, sand, and straw at a time. The mud was cold and it must be even more cold now for those still working away, but there’s something very basic about feeling mud between the toes and sculpting a building by hand. Who among us hasn’t played in the mud or sand as a child. I was five when my dad decided his worm farm project wasn’t quite working out as well as he thought it would and turned the farm into a fantastic sand box. Thank goodness the worms preferred the yard outside the farm more than the farm itself. If you hear of any workshop event in cob construction, compressed earth block, or adobe near you. I highly recommend you sign up and participate in it. It will make you feel young again. Keep in touch with me or with Design~Build~Live for events and workshops in 2011.
An article in Reuters today said that in a poll of 522 Americans released Wednesday (June 16th), we supposedly still support offshore drilling and that offshore drilling is critical for the US to be competitive on the world stage. On a scale from zero to ten, representing no support through total support respectively, the 522 respondents averaged 6.3. As one would expect, support was about two points higher for Republicans than Democrats. It’s unknown whether any of the 522 contacted lived along the Gulf coast in the path of the spill.
Good to know, but just because most Americans back something doesn’t make it the right path to follow. History teaches us that many times it’s the difficult or unfamiliar choices that prove to be the best. I can only imagine that in the year 1902 most Americans might have backed support for horses, carriages, and stables just as the country was on the verge of accepting the automobile as a widespread personal transportation shift away from horse-drawn modes. I wonder if the powerhouse companies who made carriages and who marketed in horse breeding and selling stuffed the pockets of the House and Senate members to block any laws that may favor fledgling car companies. No one is left alive to tell us whether the infrastructure that was in place to support the horse, buggy, and wagon way of moving people and goods around made such a drastic shift without any strain or difficulty toward engine-powered modes of travel. Here we are in 2010 having the nerve to say we can’t have hydrogen powered cars or electric cars or bio-fuel cars because none of the gas stations are set up to supply the appropriate energy sources to the new vehicles. Boo freakin’ hoo! How many gas stations were around in 1902? It didn’t keep us from getting cars on the road.
It’s time to make the transition now. Don’t wait to see which technology will prevail. Try them all and let the marketplace sort it out. After all, the first cars were run not only by gasoline, but some ran on steam, or vegetable oil (now formulated as diesel fuel), or batteries. At one point, there were even more electric vehicles on the road somewhere at the dawn of the 20th century than there were gasoline cars. Technologies came and went as did the car companies. Here we are a hundred years later facing a different world of fuel supply, geo-petro-political tension, and environmental damage totally unforeseen by our great grandparents. I think not only are we ready for a new shift in the way things are done with regard to transportation specifically and energy use in general, I believe this transformation is LONG overdue.
As for the 6.3 score of support for offshore drilling? I would surmise that a large chunk of that score is based on our sense of comfort because it’s just the way things have to be to get gas in our cars and airplanes and keep us going. It’s the status quo. However, we are up to our tinfoil hats with the ramifications of maintaining the way things have to be. Why has America suddenly become so reluctant to change? Our history is based on changes. Okay, some of the changes didn’t turn out so great, but stagnation will certainly kill us and cost us a lot of global credibility on our way down. By the way, what happened to the big buggy and wagon manufacturers? They either made the shift to building cars, building something else the early 20th century needed, or went into the dustbin. Why can’t the giants of the energy-petro-chemical-political-corporate world do the same again? Shell made a stab at it. BP (believe it or not) once had a line of solar panels. BP, however, spent more money on designing and marketing their new green sunflower logo than they did on their solar panels. But that’s another story. It’s time we face the music and accept, rather, WELCOME change. To quote Oat Willie, “Onward, through the fog!”
[By the way, if you missed it, try to find a way to watch Jon Stewart's, "The Daily Show" from June 16, 2010. It was the best I've seen, but the real zinger was his playing clips of EVERY president from Obama all the way back to Richard Nixon all saying that the nation must finally get serious about becoming energy independent.]
Isn’t that title a bit mixed up? Not once you understand the relationship between water and energy. Simply put, it takes energy to distribute water all over town as well as treating wastewater. Likewise, a considerable amount of water is required to produce energy. Approximately 4 percent of the nation’s energy is used in the distribution and treatment of water. It’s no surprise that locally, SAWS is one of CPS Energy’s largest customers. So when you have a water leak, not only is water being wasted, it takes a little bit of energy to maintain water main pressure to feed the leak. Leaks are one thing. Letting water run too long is a more serious matter and does lead to measurable energy loss. According to the EPA’s WaterSense webpage, letting your faucet run for 5 minutes uses as much energy as leaving a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours.
Then there’s the energy required in heating water. If you are not already using solar energy to heat water, the energy required to heat water for bathing, washing dishes, and other uses is considerable. We know you are already saving some of this energy by using only cold water to wash clothes, right? If you are using electric energy to heat water, the national average indicates ¼ of your total electric use goes to heat that water!
What about the other side of the coin? How much water is used to produce electricity? Again, not counting renewable energy from solar, landfill gas, and wind, we get most of our electricity from coal-fired and nuclear power plants with a little bit now and then from natural gas-fired power plants. These are just ways to heat water to produce steam energy to drive turbines. As you might imagine, a lot of water is required by power plants to produce electricity. That’s why power plants are located next to reliable sources of water such as lakes. According to research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), for the Department of Energy, these types of energy generating plants (called “thermally driven, water-cooled energy conversion cycle” or “thermoelectric” plants) required 0.47 gallons of water for every kilowatt-hour of energy measured at the customer’s meter. This is primarily from water lost to steam evaporation during the energy production process, not water running through the plant and returning to the lake or other water source. In San Antonio, CPS Energy claims that currently, 11 percent of our energy comes from wind, landfill gas, and solar sources. That means 89 percent of our energy is from thermoelectric plants. So, for our particular mix, it takes 0.42 gallons of water used for every kilowatt-hour of energy measured at our home electric meters (assuming no water is used in the production of electricity from our wind, landfill gas, and solar sources).
So, if leaving your water run for five minutes uses as much energy as leaving a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours, remember too, that leaving a 60-watt light bulb on for 14 hours means another 0.35 gallons is lost to produce that energy. When you are careful about your water use, you’re saving energy. And when you save energy, you’re saving water. Makes you feel good to do both, doesn’t it?
This morning, I received from Amazon.com a recommendation for a book, “LEED Materials, a Resource Guide to Green Building,” by Ari Meisel. To be honest, the only thing I know about this book is the information provided by Amazon. I have not read this book. However, part of the information supplied by Amazon included sample images of the cover and inside sample pages of the book indicating specific materials and the LEED categories each of the materials can claim LEED points for.
One of the materials highlighted was a particular brand of artificial turf. “Artificial turf” is a euphemism for “plastic ground cover” just as much as “downsizing” is a sanitized way to say a company fired a lot of people. So, besides the color, what’s green about plastic ground cover? The obvious answer is that with nothing but plastic to eat, there are no pesky bugs or weeds, so there’s no pesticides or herbicides needed. Hooray. With no need to grow or maintain anything, there’s no need for fertilizer, mowers, trimmers, and blowers. Big woop. Water for irrigation is forever eliminated. Everybody rejoice! We now have the ultimate green lawn solution handed down by DuPont et.al., to free us from our awful, problematic, and polluting lawns, right? Not so fast.
For starters, with intelligent landscaping practice, beautiful lawns can be established with safe, natural methods that do not require chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, high water demand, or gas guzzling machinery. It’s possible, because examples of natural holistic landscaping exist. Lawns do not have to require more water than is expected to fall from the sky in any of our climate zones. Only those who insist on having monoculture lawns using turf species native to (usually) someplace else with more rainfall than us would require excess irrigation. Regarding plastic ground cover, some residential installations are actually watered by homeowners who report the plastic ground cover gets too hot. Imagine that. Here in Central Texas, where cool is king, there are some who will give up cool grass lawns for hot plastic lawns. Why is the plastic hot? Simply put, physics and biology. Plastic ground cover is dark green and does not use solar energy to absorb carbon dioxide to produce oxygen. It just sits there, gets hot, and adds to the urban heat island effect. Yes, that’s right, living plants absorb carbon dioxide (and other pollutants), produce oxygen, and reduce temperatures. LIVING PLANTS TRUMP PLASTIC EVERY TIME. Period. If I were writing the LEED guidelines (and unfortunately, I did not take the opportunity to comment on the documents as they were being written), I would not allow any project that installs plastic ground cover to earn any LEED certification. I am shocked that LEED points may be available for plastic ground cover.
Let’s talk about the health impacts of plastic ground cover compared to living plants ground cover. Look at the life cycle of both. Which is petrochemically based, contains lead (more on that later), needs to be totally replaced on a regular basis, and is not likely to be recycled? Uh huh. And which one has the capability to provide a wide range of beneficial inter-dependent biological cycles of flora, fauna, and water?
Let’s take a look at the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) summary on plastic ground cover. After testing a number of installations, and talking with representatives of companies that produce plastic ground cover, they determined the lead level in plastic ground cover might be transferred to children, but in acceptable amounts. How much lead do you want your kids to be exposed to? The CPSC says that lead content of 10 micrograms per liter of blood is cause for concern. Any lead ingestion of 15 micrograms per day may lead to a lead content of blood at that concentration. To be fair, the major plastic ground cover manufacturers are now installing lead-free plastic turf. Still, in the summary, the CPSC recognizes that there are still older installations in place and that children should wash their hands after playing on these surfaces “especially before eating.” In a letter written to CPSC Chairman Thomas Moore on May 15, 2008, Synthetic Turf Council President Rick Doyle expressed his appreciation that the CPSC would “ensure” that artificial turf would not be categorized as a “children’s product” and therefore would not be held to the same level of lead content limitation as required in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (HR 4040). For a look at this letter, scroll down to the bottom of this link.
Before this blog descends too deeply into details, I want to end with an observation relating to the question at the top of this page. Is the Ari Meisel book accurate? Are there LEED points available to the installation of plastic ground cover? If so, this is an outrageous example of poor green choices being awarded by the USGBC. I’m going to have to look once again at the latest versions of the LEED books to see if there exists language in the guidelines that reward this or any other greenwashing materials or systems. Perhaps I’m being unfair. I still believe in the core efforts of the writers of the LEED guidelines, that they have the best of intentions. I want to believe this is not a deception on the part of the USGBC, but merely another example of a product manufacturer able to use the language of the LEED guidelines to achieve favor; a wolf in green clothing in other words. If that’s the case, hopefully, the USGBC will be able to find a way to rectify problems such as this. After all, plastic ground cover does eliminate pesticides, herbicides, and irrigation, but at what environmental cost?
A builder once told me that the size of the average home has been increasing over the years because the size of the average family has been increasing. Rather than argue with him, I just mentioned that I doubted that that was the case, and I’d get back with him on that after doing a little research.
Going to the census records from 1950-2000, I found out that the size of the average single family house in 1950 was 983 square feet. By 2000, the average house size shot up to 2,272 square feet, a 231 percent increase! Maybe, the builder I was talking with might assume, that was to accommodate a similar increase in average household population. Let’s see. In 1950, the census determined the size of the average household was 3.0 people. Due to various social changes and predominately the divorce rate increase in the last half of the 20th Century resulting in two households per family for much of the population, the size of the average household in 2000 shrank to 2.5 inhabitants per house. That’s a decrease of almost 17 percent of house inhabitants during the same period the house size more than doubled. Or in other words, the average space utilized by a person in 1950 was 328 square feet. That includes that person’s share of all rooms, kitchen, hallways, and everything except for the garage. By 2000, the size allocation shot up to 909 square feet (a 277% increase).
Being able to settle the question of house size responding to family size, I went just one step further by determining the cost of construction per square foot. In 1950, the average house cost $11,000. That’s the equivalent of $60,700 in year 2000 currency adjusted for inflation. The average new house in 2000 cost $195,000. If you want to understand the most persuasive reason for designing an efficient house, using the figures I just outlined, the house built in 1950 cost the equivalent (accounting for inflation) of $20,200 per inhabitant. By 2000, the cost of a new house per inhabitant skyrocketed to $78,000 per inhabitant, almost a four-fold increase. It would be difficult to find anything else that increased at that rate in the span of fifty years.
This is not necessarily an argument for us all to live like families did 60 years ago, but honestly, was it really all that bad? Of course not. Sure families have more appliances and stuff today. And maybe there’s just no way you think you could live in a house 1/3 the size of the average house built today, but considering the cost of construction, if you could build a new house 2/3 or 1/2 the size of the average newly built house, think of all the money you could save. Possibly enough money saved to build a net-zero energy, high-performance house, I would imagine. It’s worth a thought.
Once the mighty liner hit the iceberg, arranging the deck chairs had no effect on the inevitable sinking of the Titanic. What does it matter if you are agonizing between bamboo or linoleum for flooring choices when your house is going to be a bloated six thousand square foot in size and you will be driving 150 miles a week just getting to and from work? There are some big-picture considerations that must be addressed before patting yourself on the back by ordering flooring from rapidly renewing resources.
As transportation costs rise (and no one argues they will fall), it becomes more important with regard to the number of trips you and your family will have to take requiring some kind of gasoline. It’s not so much an issue if you home school (or don’t have children), can work from home, and can grow your own food. I’m certainly not in that category, but these are increasingly more important considerations. Once you have found a conveniently placed location to build, how much energy will you need to produce? That depends first of all on how energy efficient your family will be. Consider lighting, air conditioning/heating, appliances, construction of your building envelope (roof, walls, windows, and doors), the application of renewable energy systems, and of course, personal energy use habits. Even properly orienting your house on your site can make as much as a 15% difference in energy use. Don’t forget water. Will you be able to be connected to municipal water? Depending on your location, consider rainwater harvesting, even if it’s just for irrigation purposes. Related to that, what will your landscape look like? If you do not already have an established varied mix of native plants, establish one. Forget plants that cannot thrive in our climate, and definitely do not encourage invasive species.
Okay, once you have made sensible choices on these and a handful of other big-picture considerations, then you can obsess with fun things like paint color, furniture, and finishes.
Just up the road about an hour or so exists our good friends and green cousins up in Austin. Design~Build~Live is a group of folks who get together and sponsor a large number of affordable hands-on workshops in all types of natural building techniques. Their monthly meetings, similar to the meetings held here in San Antonio, focus on green and sustainable living issues. I have decided not to post all of DBL’s events here. I might miss a few that you might want to attend. Instead, please go directly to their website on a regular basis to get all necessary details for each event. Hit the link to their site (as well as the link to San Antonio Sustainable Living) found in the “Green Resources” section on the right margin of this page for the latest information of natural building events to be found in our area.