Brown’s executive order, EPA’s tools for siting wind and solar

California’s state buildings are about to get a whole lot greener, thanks to a sweeping executive order issued Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown.  “Sweeping” by the by, is the word used in the press release announcing the executive order, but after reading the document, the adjective is appropriate.

Basically, Brown wants the government to be a model for energy-efficiency and green building, which ultimately will save taxpayers millions of dollars, while also stimulating green business and jobs in the state.

Why this is important is that when businesses see government investing in green energy, they know they will have a stable market and they want to locate nearby.

Among the goals Brown sets in the order:

– By 2020, 50 percent of al l new state buildings will be zero net energy facilities — that means they will be carbon neutral. By 2025, all new state buildings will need to hit the zero net mark.

– By 2018,  all state facilities will have to reduce the power they buy off the grid — that is from utilities — by 20 percent compared to a 2003 baseline. Non-building related energy purchases will also have to cut 20 percent from 2003.

– All state agencies will need to take actions to cut their greenhouse gas emissions at least 10 percent by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020, compared to a 2010 baseline.

– Any proposed new state building or major renovation of existing facilities larger than 10,000 square feet will need to generate its power onsite using solar photovoltaic, solar thermal or wind power generation, along with clean back-up power supplies, if economically feasible.

– Any new state buildings, major renovations to existing facilties or build-to-suit leases larger than 10,000 square feet will have to obtain LEED Silver certification or higher.

Brown is really raising the bar to keep California ahead of other states that have been giving us increasing competition in recent years on various national surveys of which states are greenest.

For example, the state led the nation in total square footage of new LEED-certified buildings in 2011, more than 71.5 million square feet. but the U.S. Green Building Council ranks states not on total square footage, but on a per capita basis and there we were eighth, behind Washington, D.C., Colorado, Illinois,  Washington, Maryland, Massachusetts and Texas. 

Critics will say all meeting the governor’s goals will be too expensive at a time when the state is still recovering from the recession. But going green, as most large businesses know, is all about the bottom line.  Energy efficiency generally pays for itself, and, Brown did add the kicker about solar and wind projects having to be economically feasible before going forward.

Meanwhile, in a bit of interesting synchronicity,  on the same day Brown issued his executive order, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have released new  tools designed to test underutilized sites and disturbed or contaminated land for solar and wind energy potential.

This is an initiative aimed more at local governments, to help them re-power vacant land with wind and solar projects.

The EPA estimates that there approximately 490,000 sites and almost 15 million acres of potentially contaminated properties across the country that could be developed as green energy sites. 

“Opportunites to install renewable energy systems on vacant properties can be found in every community,” said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA’s regional director for the Pacific Southwest. “Tapping sun and wind power at brownfield sites, rooftops, parking lots and abandoned land could provide untapped gigawatts of clean energy.” 

 And hundreds of jobs.

This is an argument Coachella Valley environmental groups have made when arguing against large-scale solar projects in the Riverside East solar zone — the swathe of public land between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe. We have piles of abandoned agricultural land where smaller, less intrusive renewable projects might be built, they said.

 The core of the tools are “decision trees” — documents that walk officials through a series of questions to evaluate sites for renewable energy development. For example, to prescreen a site, the first question to ask is how big it is. One should assume about 5 acres per megawatt.

Other key requirements — a minimum level of sun, about 3.5 kilowatt hours per square meter per day, which apparently includes most places in the U.S. – whether the site is within half a mile of a transmission line and within one mile of a graded road.  The tree keeps going, asking more and more detailed questions so developers can identify or exclude a site for renewable energy development, before investing in an official, expensive site evaluation.

And while the focus is on developing contaminated or disturbed sites, the tools can be used for siting wind and solar on rooftops, parking structures, land mounts and commercial and industrial buildings.

So they might be useful for California officials ramping up wind and solar to meet the governor’s new goals after all.