California EPA's LEED platinum HQ

I’m usually quick to point out the limitations of technology for reducing environmental and other problems. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Yesterday I took a tour that hilighted how big the opportunities can be when technology and slight lifestyle changes team up. The tour was of CalEPA’s LEED platinum skyscraper – evidently the first of its kind, but now a few years old. Interestingly, it was initially designed as an ordinary building, and design changes were introduced late in the game, which gives hope that most of the same innovations could be implemented as retrofits on older buildings.

When you walk up to the building, there’s no indication that there’s anything unusual about it. If anything, it’s massive (salvaged) stone decorative features lead one to think it could easily be an extravagant energy hog. That impression continues on the inside, with elegant and tasteful lighting and finishes. No hairy unwashed treehuggers freezing in the dark here.

Yet, the building uses a third the energy (per sq ft) of its peers nearby, even with a big datacenter on one floor that consumes a third of the energy in the 25-story structure. The big heroes are an efficient skin, with low-e windows and detailing to reduce solar gain on the south and west sides, coupled with an advanced HVAC system. Climate control combines 10,000 sensors with three different sizes of chiller unit and variable-speed motor controls. That way, equipment always operates near its optimum load. Soon, a retrofit will use groundwater (which has to be pumped out anyway) to aid cooling. Heating and cooling costs are lower, yet comfort is improved by the advanced controls.

The occupants certainly contribute a lot to efficiency. Over 80% use bikes or transit to commute, aided by a beautiful bicycle parking garage in the basement (complete with air compressor and lockers). Most prefer motion-sensitive task lights, so area lighting stays off. They adopted double-side network printers to reduce paper waste, and recycle assiduously. Worm-bin composting is a popular office activity. As a result the building managers have to haul trash only twice a month instead of the typical twice a week. Because staff don’t have to spend as much time with regular garbage, they have more energy to figure out how to recycle used computers and other unusual materials.

Sometimes the benefits are unexpected. To reduce nighttime lighting loads, most of the leaning in the building happens during the day. Side effects include greatly reduced reports of theft and workers’ comp claims, better cooperation on cleaning and recycling (aided by the low waste flow), and greater occupant satisfaction. It turns out that it’s easier to like someone you see on a daily basis. Materials have side benefits too. Zero-VOC paints mean that occasional repairs don’t stink up the place and needn’t be confined to weekends. Low-volatile, recyclable carpet tiles turn out to be extremely durable and repairable, and permit creative design.

The amazing thing is that most of the features paid for themselves in under two years, with correspondingly huge ROIs. None takes a radical change in workstyle, but there’s lots of synergy among them. It wasn’t easy to pull this off, in the sense that it took a lot of thinking, but if you think thinking is fun, then you wouldn’t call it hard either.

Another Look at Limits to Growth

I was just trying to decide whether I believed what I said recently, that the current economic crisis is difficult to attribute to environmental unsustainability. While I was pondering, I ran across this article by Graham Turner on the LtG wiki entry, which formally compares the original Limits runs to history over the last 30+ years. A sample:

Industrial output in Limits to Growth runs vs. history

The report basically finds what I’ve argued before: that history does not discredit Limits.

The Growth Bubble

I caught up with my email just after my last post, which questioned the role of the real economy in the current financial crisis. I found this in my inbox, by Thomas Friedman, currently the most-emailed article in the NYT:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall ’” when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more.’

Certainly there are some parallels between the housing bubble and environment/growth issues. You have your eternal growth enthusiasts with plausible-sounding theories, cheered on by people in industry who stand to profit.

There’s plenty of speculation about the problem ahead of time:
Google news timeline - housing bubble

Google news timeline – housing bubble

People in authority doubt that there’s a problem, and envision a soft landing. In any case, nobody does anything about it.

Sound familiar so far?

However, I think it’s a bit of a leap to attribute our current mess to unsustainability in the real economy. For one thing, in hindsight, it’s clear that we weren’t overshooting natural carrying capacity in 1929, so it’s clearly possible to have a depression without an underlying resource problem. For another, we had ridiculously high commodity prices, but not many other direct impacts of environmental catastrophe (other than all the ones that have been slowly worsening for decades). My guess is that environmental overshoot has a lot longer time constant than housing or tech stock markets, both on the way up and the way down, so overshoot will evolve in more gradual and diverse ways at first. I think at best you can say that detecting the role of unsustainable resource management is like the tropical storm attribution problem. There are good theoretical reasons to think that higher sea surface temperatures contribute to tropical storm intensity, but there’s little hope of pinning Katrina on global warming specifically.

Personally, I think it’s possible that EIA is right, and peak oil is a little further down the road. With a little luck, asset prices might stabilize, and we could get another run of growth, at least from the perspective of those who benefit most from globalization. If so, will we learn from this bubble, and take corrective action before the next? I hope so.

I think the most important lesson could be the ending of the housing bubble, as we know it so far. It’s not a soft landing; positive feedbacks have taken over, as with a spark in a dry forest. That seems like a really good reason to step back and think, not just how to save big banks, but how to turn our current situation into a storm of creative destruction that mitigates the bigger one coming.