Green Brains and Smart Things, For Once

2 11 2010

Back from vacation this week.  I hope I didn’t ruin your week!  Hahahaha!  (this week or last, you decide)

This week is more of a rave than a rant.  I want to share some energy efficiency and sustainability successes and trends that make sense.  If you have read many rants, I typically rail against dumb policy and technologies that are roads to dead ends.  Energy efficiency and sustainability, in my opinion, must either cost next to nothing or have a decent return on investment, even though that ROI may be difficult to quantify.

First cases come from a month and a half ago while attending a board meeting for the Iowa Association for Energy Efficiency on the campus of Iowa State University.  Like many if not most other campuses, they are implementing green policies to the point of having a full-time coordinator.  My knowledge of typical practices is that they include a bunch of fluff and dumb ideas, like “let’s put up a wind turbine”, while campus facilities are bleeding energy like [insert your own gory example here].

First, they got rid of food trays.  Let’s examine the cost and benefits.  Cost=zero.  Benefit; if I remember correctly, they reduced food waste by 50%, or was it 30% (?), saving all the resources and energy associated with growing, processing, transporting and cooking the food.  I believe students were on an all-you can eat meal plan as well, so the reduced food waste also lowered meal plan costs.  Going even deeper, you know how food portions have grown to obscene volumes in part by using obscenely large dishes.  Pull out your tape measure sometime when you get your food at a decent restaurant.  Your humungous portion is hidden by the fact that the dish it comes in could be used for giving your dog a bath.  A college cafeteria tray is big.  Point is, students probably eat less and are therefore healthier.  This is as brilliant as it gets.

Second thing ISU is doing is deploying solar-powered trash receptacles / compactors.  You may be thinking, what a stupid, overpriced waste of money.  Normally I would be on that wagon but these are actually smart trash bins as well.  They wirelessly ping the waste management company when they need to be emptied.  Therefore, rather than running around and dumping every trash bin every day even if it only contains a couple empty booze flasks, an empty case of Miller Lite, and a pizza box (college kids), they wait to be told to pick up the garbage.  Garbage truck fuel and much more importantly pricey labor is saved.  Maybe the return on investment is still only 2.3% but at least there are smart elements to it.

Now there are laws being developed such that retailers must charge for plastic bags.  Washington DC imposed a 5 cent TAX for every disposable bag – paper or plastic. I think I’ve said before that I disagree with ramming green down peoples’ throats, especially in this way with a tax.  I say at least the retailers should get to keep the money for bags, like the People’s Food Co-Op (PFC) in La Crosse does.  They actually pay you to bring your own bags/boxes.

The interesting thing in this article is that peer pressure is used to nudge the masses into doing green.  This works for me, and grocery bags are the perfect example.  When I was in graduate school one of my roommates from Belgium would always take his used paper grocery bags for our weekly grocery haul.  Then I started doing that and continued to do it a while here in La Crosse but then I quit.  Boooooo!  But I shop at least weekly at the PFC and I always take a reusable bag or box there.  In fact, I’ll even go back out to the car to get them if I forget.  My Capital brewery Blonde Dopplebock box has been through the PFC at least a couple hundred times.  If you don’t believe it, you can see the tape reinforcements, tattered edges, and notice the old logo and artwork on the box.  The sentimental value builds over time.  It’s like my 18 year old Wisconsin sweatshirt with vented elbows and neckline, with fringe.  It’s absolutely priceless.

There is still need for entrepreneurial design for this bagging stuff though.  I don’t see mom or dad filling up two grocery carts with kids in tow and then messing around with a mishmash of 14 reusable bags.  Better think about that one.  Need something like a backpack as a reusable dispenser for reusable bags.  Include creature features like a cup holder, or better yet, a Camelback to stay hydrated, or relaxed depending on the beverage of your choice.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP

Save Energy – Get Out of Jail

15 12 2009

Unless you were living in a cave four or five years ago, you know Wal-Mart was under relentless assault by, I’ll just call them activists.  Complaints included: They weren’t providing health care to enough people.  They weren’t paying overtime.  Their goods were manufactured in sweat shops overseas.  When unions tried to organize their meat cutting operations, Wal-Mart exited the meat cutting business.  Their executives were making too much money.  The company was making too much money.  Part of the real gripe was that Wal-Mart had saturated the rural and small town markets and they had started to impinge into larger markets.  Social elites in university towns did NOT want to sip cappuccinos across the street from Wal-Mart, or see Wal-Mart flyers in the Sunday paper, or perhaps worst of all, they did not want to attract the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart to their enclave.

It seemed all of a sudden, the whining stopped, overnight.  Why?  I would say their green construction, energy efficiency, and purchasing muscle to get suppliers to become more efficient and green probably shot the knees out of this protest movement.  Suddenly it seems, Wal-Mart had become one of the greatest corporate forces for green business practices in the country.  This was like one of the Hatfields marrying into the McCoys – a reluctant truce between the activist crowd and Wal-Mart.  This was a Joan Rivers kind of a makeover (have you seen her lately?).

I attend a half dozen or so mid-size to major energy efficiency conferences a year.  Wal-Mart’s energy efficiency and green purchasing requirements are showcased at many of these events by keynote speakers.  Ironically, Wal-Mart was lambasted for its hardball thuggery in negotiating pricing deals with its suppliers.  I don’t hear the same for these green requirements.  Playing the green card has gotten Wal-Mart out of protester jail.

Not only has the green card gotten Wal-Mart out of jail, it has new competitors scrambling.  As one case in particular, a grocery spokesperson stated a few years ago that [paraphrasing], “We do not want to become Wal-Mart.  We do not want to compete with Wal-Mart.”  To one extent this was smart.  If you compete with Wal-Mart on price, they would crush you.  However, Wal-Mart’s green initiatives have positioned them to gain market share at the expense of these former non-competitors.  When another company is stealing your customers, it’s competition whether you want to compete with them or not.  Not only is Wal-Mart greening its business and its supply chain, it is greening its competitors.

As the skeptical engineer, I ask myself, are they really saving energy in their stores?  You can see it when you walk into their stores.  As their skylights stream copious daylight, their lighting fixtures are dimmed down to a tiny percentage of full power.  I am told that in some stores as you walk the refrigerated case isles, occupancy sensors flip on their low-power LED case lighting.  Now that is demonstrable energy savings.  Even energy neophytes can see what’s happening there.  Ok.  This is all dandy.  What’s the bottom line?  It appears these stores are not the Toyota Priuses of the grocery and retail world if you look at their “gas mileage”, or energy use per square foot.  There is plenty of room for improvement.

On a completely unrelated note, it seems the State of California is following my advice to see that stimulus money spent on energy efficiency is actually resulting in energy savings (November 17 rant).  The California Energy Commission has issued a $4 million request for proposals to verify savings occur.  I’m sure I influenced that – heyaaah, right.  Hahahaha.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP