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Green Rebuilding in New Orleans

The ongoing effort to rebuild and restore the city of New Orleans has prompted a number of questions about exactly how to rebuild in the city. As it has turned out, the times are ripe for rethinking how we build and organize urban spaces and a number of people – in New Orleans and around the country – have called for an approach that offers greater attention to sustainability.

One such voice has come from Global Green USA, a non-profit environmental organization based in Los Angeles, whose focus is stemming global climate change by creating green buildings and cities. Global Green suggested that the rebuilding of New Orleans should embrace sustainability, making use of green buildings, renewable energy and livable communities that are designed on a human scale and that do not require extensive use of automobiles.

Global Green enlisted the support of city leaders, local businesses and organizations and neighborhood associations to advance this idea, while attracting interest, talent and support from around the country. Their vision became the Holy Cross Project, a zero-energy, affordable housing development in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower 9th Ward. When completed, the project will include five single-family homes, an 18-unit apartment building and a community center that will also serve as a sustainable design and climate action center.

The goals of the project are to achieve net zero energy usage and be carbon neutral, consisting of green buildings that meet LEED Platinum standards, the highest standard developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. Ideally, the project will serve as an example to the rest of the city, and the country as a whole, on how to achieve sustainability in urban areas.

Designing an Intelligent City Space

Global Green partnered with actor Brad Pitt and the Home Depot Foundation (which serves as the major project funder) to make the project a reality. A parcel of land in the Lower 9th Ward was secured for the project site and Global Green sponsored an international competition during the summer of 2006 to select the best design. Pitt served as the chair of the selection jury, which chose a design from more than 125 entries that competed, including several from teams based in New Orleans. (Image courtesy Global Green USA.)

The jury first chose six finalists. Then the teams got an opportunity to work with a technical panel and meet with Holy Cross residents to refine their designs, which were presented in a final round of judging. The winning design was by Workshop/apd, a firm from New York City.

A key element of the project involved the use of renewable energy to provide power for the community. To achieve the project’s energy and emissions goals, Global Green brought the Maryland-based consultancy Think Energy onto the team. Think Energy is a firm whose sole focus is renewable energy, working with organizations such as Toyota, Raytheon and the Los Angeles Unified School District to help them make the switch to using renewable energy in their facilities.

Think Energy’s role was to conduct technical and financial feasibility analyses involving a variety of technologies and to assist with the selection and procurement of energy systems. The key question to consider with renewable energy use was this: what types of technologies would feasibly provide the greatest level of energy generation and be cost-effective?

Think Energy considered several options, which included solar photovoltaics (PV), solar hot water, solar street lights, geothermal heat pumps and river turbines. All of these options offer the potential for significant electricity generation in New Orleans. The use of river turbines seemed particularly appropriate. This technology has not been widely used to date, but it offers a potentially attractive option, allowing the abundant water resources of the Mississippi River to be used for supplying clean energy to the city.

“Global Green’s vision for New Orleans is both ambitious and creative,” said Mark Crowdis, CEO of Think Energy. “The Holy Cross project is bringing together the best practices for green building, efficient use of resources, and renewable energy. If it is feasible to use the innovative river turbines currently being developed, this project will be able to showcase the technology for all to emulate.”

The feasibility analysis determined that the most suitable technologies were solar PV and solar hot water. The use of solar PV to generate electricity was considered vital to meeting the net-zero electricity goal and systems were planned for every building–five homes, 18 apartments and the community center.

While the project could not take advantage of the federal solar energy tax credit (the not-for-profit project pays no taxes), a new Louisiana tax credit can be used to offset some of the costs. (The law’s exact wording prompted an unusual modification in designing the apartment building. To be eligible for the full amount of the tax credit, there must be 18 separate small PV systems installed on the roof rather than one large system.)

The project design calls for approximately 65 kW of solar PV generation capacity, which can supply about 230 kWh of electricity every day. This translates into a $550 savings in energy bills every month for the community; money that would otherwise be spent on conventionally-produced electricity. Moreover, by offsetting the use of fossil fuels to generate clean power, the project can avoid emitting almost 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

Solar hot water was also deemed to be a technology that made sense, both technically and financially. However, it is not being used in the project. The reason is that there is limited roof space available for solar panels. Since priority is being given to electricity production, there will not be sufficient space to include solar hot water systems.

One alternative considered was to place the solar hot water panels on the south facing walls of the homes. However, technical analysis determined that this placement would significantly diminish the systems’ energy output, making them too inefficient to warrant their usage.

The use of river turbines represents a third option for clean energy generation and one that could potentially supply a significant amount of the total energy needed for the Holy Cross Project. The community is adjacent to the Mississippi River; connecting the community to a small hydropower energy system would be relatively simple.

The challenges in using river turbines are twofold, however. First, the energy output of a system is dependent upon the velocity of the water at the bottom of the river, and this quantity is has to be definitively determined. Think Energy brought the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research onto the project to study the river flow and ascertain its velocity at the points where river turbines could potentially be used.

A second hurdle is that the placement of energy equipment in U.S. waters is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The process of acquiring a license to place turbines in the river is both lengthy and costly. In fact, the largest cost of employing river turbines would be the licensing cost.

FERC is in the process of establishing a licensing process for pilot projects, such as those involving new technologies. The cost of obtaining a license, however, is still unclear. To the extent that river turbines can supply electricity to the Holy Cross Project, it will have to be determined at a later date, depending upon the technical, financial and regulatory feasibility.

(Re)Building a Community

The Holy Cross Project broke ground in 2007. The first building to be constructed was a single family home, which was completed in May 2008. Though the project has proceeded more slowly than originally anticipated, work has continued and there are currently three new houses that are nearing completion. The project has also opened a visitors’ center in the first home, to lead tours and show developers, contractors and residents how to build green. When construction is completed on a majority of the project, the houses and then apartments will be sold to displaced residents of the Holy Cross and 9th Ward neighborhoods.

The structures boast numerous innovative, green features such as solar panels on the rooftops, spray foam insulation for greater energy efficiency, Energy Star appliances, floors made with reclaimed wood and wood treated with borate, a natural salt that makes the wood resistant to mold, mildew and termites.  (Image courtesy Global Green USA.)

An added feature is the use of the “Building Dashboard.” The dashboard is a display that will monitor solar energy production and resource usage, including consumption of energy, city-supplied water, rainwater, and natural gas, all in real time. The idea, which has proven successful in other applications, is that when people can see their level of resource consumption, they take steps to reduce it.

The Holy Cross Project goes even further and makes the dashboard currently operating in the visitors’ center available online, so that anyone can view the users’ consumption patterns. (One expects that we would all be far more conscientious in conserving resources if our own comparable data was available for others to see.)

An Example to Be Followed

The Holy Cross Project offers a model for sustainable development that can be replicated in other communities in New Orleans and throughout the country. State-of-the-art green building technologies and techniques, renewable energy and innovative neighborhood designs allow for communities to achieve better livability, greater sustainability and reduced use of fossil fuels.

At the same time, there are many hurdles to be overcome. While the Holy Cross community is small, a sustainability project of this scope is a significant undertaking and such projects are rare. To ensure success, a few key elements have to be addressed.

First, thorough planning is essential when designing a community-scale green building/renewable energy project. With greater size comes greater complexity and it is essential to identify and resolve problems early to avoid costly delays and wasted resources. On occasion, the Holy Cross Project team learned this lesson the hard way.

Second, project managers need to establish and prioritize goals early in the process. Sustainability goals can compete for attention and limited resources (for example, spend money on renewable energy systems or on building materials produced with the best practices?) and shifting priorities costs time and money.

Third, while every construction project is unique, those involving the emerging fields of green building and renewable energy are particularly distinctive, facing challenges that are often quite different from typical development projects. It is essential to carefully consider all the unique attributes of a project to ensure that no important elements are overlooked, as this can drastically impact the technical and financial feasibility of a plan.

The biggest barrier yet to be overcome is cost. The cost of adopting the latest and best materials and technologies — those that embrace efficiency and conservation — is still relatively expensive. Paradoxically, it is often cheaper to waste our resources than to conserve them. Costs, however, are beginning to come down and over time economies of scale and experience will produce greater savings and more widespread use of green building practices and clean energy options.

The ultimate goal is to have green buildings and renewable energy become “hardwired” into the construction and energy industries, so they are not novel choices, but simply standard technologies and practices whose use is routine; in the way that information technologies (computers, cell phones, internet, wi-fi, and so on) have been adopted over the last 20 years.

This is an achievable goal, and in fact, it is one that has been achieved to a limited extent in the past. Well before we built massive power plants and invented central heating and air conditioning and long before Levittown was built, people employed a form of green building, designing and constructing buildings suitable for their environment, so that structures could be useful, comfortable and livable.

It’s time to return to this type of approach and to go it one better, using our resources more wisely than ever to protect our environment, build strong communities and enhance sustainability.

David Bernell is senior clean energy market advisor at Think Energy Inc., a renewable energy consulting firm in Silver Spring, MD and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Oregon State University. You can see more information about the Holy Cross Redevelopment Project here.

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