California and LEED — No. 9 or No. 1?

The U.S. Green Building Council has tallied up new LEED buildings certified in states across the U.S. last year to see which are the most green-friendly, but the results, released on Wednesday may seem to some a bit skewed.

The organization that established the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system for energy efficient and sustainable building design — and made it the gold standard for public and corporate buildings across the country — bases its top 11 list on square footage of LEED-certified space per capita.

On that basis, Washington, D.C., with 110 new LEED buildings totaling 22,246,445 square feet leads the pack with 36.97 square feet per capita. We’ll rack that up to government buildings, such as the LEED gold U. S. Mint Building (below)  and other national groups going green with large projects, and the district’s relatively small population.

There are only so many residents you can fit into a 10-mile square. Most of the people who work in D.C. and use those new buildings probably live in the surrounding suburbs.

Meanwhile, California, with 540 new LEED projects totaling 54,252,993 square feet only narrowly made the list at No. 9. Our per capita in 2012 was 1.46 square feet. Even though the state is absolutely No. 1 in number of projects and total square footage, we are penalized by our nation-leading population.

All that said, while I may gripe about USGBC’s figure juggling, there’s no arguing with the success of the LEED system. Almost any major city today is practically jammed with LEED projects, San Francisco being a case in point. Northern California has about 760 LEED projects.

This success is based not only on bottom-line savings on direct things such as energy use, but intangibles, such as building comfort and health of inhabitants.

Worldwide, more than 15,000 commercial projects have been certified under LEED, with more than 35,000 additional projects in the pipeline, totaling more than 10.3 billion square feet of space.


K’s excellent green staycation

I have been told, on more than one occasion, that I have peculiar ideas about having fun and relaxing.  I was off last week, staying in town, and without deadlines and editors to deal with, had time to check out some of the green goings-on about town that I don’t always have time for.

First up, last Monday, was sitting in on a lunch webinar held by the Coachella Valley Branch of the U.S. Green Building Council. The topic was Passive House technology, developed mostly in Germany, but also with contributions from Canada and the U.S.,  that allows buildings to run on minimal power for heating or cooling — kind of like net-zero on steroids. Being certified as a Passive House is a complicated process, involving filling in an Exel spreadsheet with 42 tabs.

Here’s the official definition from the Passive House Institute of the U.S.:

A Passive House is a very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. Energy losses are minimized. Any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source. Avoidance of heat gain through shading and window orientation also helps to limit any cooling load, which is similarly minimized. An energy recovery ventilator provides a constant, balanced fresh air supply. The result is an impressive system that not only saves up to 90% of space heating costs, but also provides a uniquely terrific indoor air quality.

The interesting thing here is that some projects are now going for double certification, both the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification and Passive House. The reason is that Passive House is focused for the most part on building performance — which has always been a weakness of LEED. The kind of things it covers, ranging from building siting to water use, may not always guarantee low energy performance.  Passive House does.  

Eric Corey Freed, co-chair of the CV Branch, would like to see a Passive House building in the valley; even with our blistering summers, he thinks it’s possible.

“I’m of the mind set now, being less bad is silly,” he said. “Why not go all the way.”

After that, I tooled on over to the Century at The River for a screening of “Chasing Ice,” a documentary about photographer James Balog’s efforts to photograph and film the melting of the world’s glaciers, which has accelerated dangerously as the earth warms.

This is one of those films you should see for the good of your soul; it has turned climate change skeptics into believers. Beyond the beautiful and at times heart-breaking photography — the collapse of a giant ice sheet at the end of the film is like watching the death of some magnificent, mythic creature – Balog’s intense commitment to documenting the melting glaciers, taking him away from his wife and daughters for months at a time, is inspiring in and of itself.

It’s still at The River; run, do not walk.

Thursday I also took a quick trip to Desert Hot Springs High School where Ted Flanigan and the crew at EcoMotion had set up their CO2 Time Bomb for a lunch time rally their Save a Ton campaign.  Flanigan has worked with the Coachella Valley Association of Governments, doing carbon inventories and climate action plans for several cities across the valley.

Flanigan came up with the Time Bomb as a way to help people visualize what a ton of carbon actually looks like. The average Californian puts 12 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, the kids learned.  The event was during lunch period, and I was concerned about how much of the presentation they would actually absorb — they mostly stayed around the edges of the courtyard, eating their food. But at the end of the rally, many were eager to talk with Flanigan about their ideas for reducing their carbon footprint, and they all wanted the Time Bomb T-shirts, stickers and other swag the team had brought with them — so they’ll have something to look at and think about.

On Sunday, I took a quick road trip out to Desert Center to check in on Hot Purple Energy’s vegetable oil-powered race car at the 24 Hours of LeMons at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway.  I wrote about the Palm Springs solar installer’s veggie oil-powered fleet earlier ths month, but we had not been able to photograph the car fitted out for the race because it was still in the shop, so extra safety equipment could be installed. Here she is, at the track; you can see part of the roll bar in the back window.








Unfortunately, I got there a bit late. After a grueling day on the track Saturday, the HPE 350 Mercedes Benz was leaking too much oil to race on Sunday. The car managed around 78 laps around the track on Saturday and at one point was ranked 38th of the 140 cars in the race, according to Nate Otto, company president, who said a good time was had by all. 

When I got there, Sunday afternoon, Otto (right) and David Herrlinger, company VP, were hanging out, waiting for a trailer to haul the car back to the valley.








One question I realized I hadn’t asked Otto and Herrlinger last week was about the emissions from a veggie oil-fueled car. I mean, veggie oil comes from plant material and plants store carbon. The answer I got from Herrlinger, backed up with some of my own online research, is that veggie oil is considered more or less carbon neutral, because the plants it comes from have absorbed about as much CO2 as biodiesel emits.

But as some sites also point out, you have to take into account the emissions involved in processing the original veggies into the oil to start with. So, on a total product lifecycle basis, it’s not completely clean, but still better than traditional fossil fuels.

My last stop of the day was at Just Fabulous in Palm Springs, where owner Stephen Monkarsh collared me to show off his green gift options for the holiday. Top of the list are some very cool and different watches from a company called Wewood, which produces wood watches, some from recycled wood. Buy one of these sharp-looking time pieces and the company plants a tree — about 5,000 trees in the U.S. so far, according to the Wewood website.








Greenwash? Slightly, but obviously, green consumerism has become a significant niche market, which has to do with mind set. The idea that we should and in fact need to live more sustainably is making its way into the mainstream in different, creative and every-day ways.


Reading the Desert Harvest draft EIS — and green schools

The problem with the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental impact statements for large-scale solar projects is their length. The recently released draft EIS for enXco’s 150-megawatt Desert Harvest solar project near Desert Center is a case in point. I don’t have an exact page count yet, but a quick eyeballing puts it well over 1,000. Chapter 4, the key Environmental Consequences section is 615 pages in and of itself.

So, I have started chipping away at the report’s most important sections so you won’t have to. The goal is to have a reasonable understanding of what the main issues surrounding the photovoltaic project are by May 14, when the BLM will hold two public meetings, one in Desert Center and one in Joshua Tree, to gather public comment on the draft.

Let’s begin at the beginning with the relatively compact Executive Summary — an easy 9 pages.

The main thing you need to know here is that the BLM has come up with seven alternative scenarios for the project – ranging from no project at all to three different ways to cut its size down from 1,208 acres to either 1,161 acres or 1,044 acres.

The alternative the agency likes best so far is Alternative 7, which reduces the footprint down to 1,044 acres, specifically taking out a 9-acre area that contains crucifixion thorn, a “sensitive” plant. However it does leave in 47 acres which are part of an official wildlife habitat management area.

Alt 7 also provides for much higher racking for the panels — 15 feet versus the 6-foot-tall racking systems used in all the other alternatives.  It is not well explained here, but other alternatives that reduce the project footprint also reduce the amount of power it will produce by between 5 megawatts and 15 megawatts.

Alt 7 would keep it at 150 megawatts.

The Executive Summary also identifies seven unavoidable adverse impacts of the project, which range from air quality – air pollution during construction – to permanent loss of plant and animal habitat to a dramatic change in the visual landscape.

“The project would create impacts from the conversion of natural desert landscape to landscape dominated by industrial character. Long-term scarring would follow project decommissioning. The project would have strong visual contrast with the surrounding landscape and would be visible from proximate wilderness areas and scenic vistas.”

The report also looks at the cumulative impact of land use conversion along Interstate 10, slipping in a key figure. Desert Harvest is part of a total land use conversion that will eventually encompass 52,000 acres, or 2.5 percent of the land, along the I-10 corridor.

That figure is more than a third of the 147,910 acres of the federally designated Riverside East solar zone, and the report notes, there are no mitigation measures to reduce the visual impact.

On the environmental side, the project would add to the cumulative loss of habitat and migration corridors for sensitive and endangered species, even with mitigation measure.

Between now and final approval, all these issues will have to be resolved, and Riverside County, which is the lead jurisdiction on state permitting for the project – that is making sure it meets California’s rigorous Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA — will have to adopt a “Statement of Overriding Considerations” that will allow the project to go forward despite significant unavoidable impacts.

So, that’s the overview. Stay tuned as I continue to read and fill in the details.

And, before I end here, the Princeton Review, in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council, has released its Guide to Green Colleges, which this year contains 322 listings on U.S. and Canadian campuses that “demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainability in their academic offerings, campus infrastructure, activities, and career preparation.”

The link to the online guide is

California is well represented, as might be expected, and yes, UC Riverside is on the list.

My various alma maters are also on the list — thank goodness – Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where I got my B.A., and the University of Maryland’s College Park campus, where I got my master’s of journalism degree.

The green conference beat

If there is any sign of the feverish level of activity in the green business and renewable energy sectors in Southern California, it would have to be the endless stream of emails pouring into my mailbox announcing a never-ending schedule of conferences and meetings — all just tantalizingly out of reach for Coachella Valley residents.

But if you have the time and interest, you could spend the next week or so on the road attending a steady  stream of green events.

The Geothermal Energy Expo, a huge tradeshow of all things geothermal, started last night and runs through Wednesay in San Diego. Hundreds of vendors from across the country and around the world will be there — presumably along with some local folks working on geothermal projects around the Salton Sea.

Next up, starting on Tuesday and running through Friday, the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit focusing on sustainable development and redevelopment issues, will be hold its 75 anniversary conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center. 

A little bit closer to home, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Inland Empire Chapter will hold its 2nd annual Green Building & Business Expo 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Frontier Project in Rancho Cucamonga.

And then, back to San Diego, where the American Society of Landscape Architects will hold their annual meeting Oct. 30-Nov. 2 — next Sunday through Wednesday. The workshops and field trips alone sound absolutely incredible; for example, Sunday’s field trip to visit the sustainable urban agriculture program at San Diego City College.

Full disclosure — I am taking a few days off for the ULI conference in Los Angeles, so expect some updates when I get back next week. I will of course be tweeting from the conference, so you can follow me @kkaufmann.

Green Building Council events

The Coachella Valley Branch of the U.S. Green Building Council will be talking energy at its quarterly meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at The Living Desert’s adminstration building, 47-900 Potrero Ave., Palm Desert.

Opining on the current state of green energy in the valley will be:

Peter Hamilton, Center for Sustainable Energy California
Vincent Battaglia,
Renova Energy
Paul Thomas, Southern California Edison

Cost at the door will be $25 for members, $30 for nonmembers and $10 for students and city planning officials or council members.

Also coming up next Wednesday, Sept. 14, is a day-long training workshop to help people prepare for the LEED Associate examination. That will be happening 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Palm Desert Desert City Hall, 73-510 Fred Waring Drive.

Being a LEED Associate means you know pretty much everything you need to know about the Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system and how it works, without getting into the technical nitty-gritty that architects and other designers need to know. Cost for nonmembers is $150.

For information on either of these, contact Eric Corey Freed, at or (415) 474-7777.