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.