February 28, 2008 Issue
Chestnut Hill Local
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Zoning Reform: cleaning the air
The subject of my last column in this series was cleaning the water (Zoning Reform: Restoring Philadelphia’s Rivers and Watersheds, Jan. 24). The subject of this column is cleaning the air —understanding why it is polluted and what we should do about it.
Keep in mind as you read on that I am using the phrase cleaning the air to include both the air that we breathe every day and the atmosphere that envelops the earth. The former has daily impacts upon the state of our health, the latter has long term impacts upon the environment such as climate change, changing weather patterns, melting polar ice caps, and flooding.
At a meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at the City Planning Commission, the Zoning Code Commission heard presentations by several experts who discussed different aspects of air quality. Tom Weir of Air Management Services of the City’s Department of Public Health and Dr. Arthur Frank of Drexel University spoke about the air that we breathe every day.
Air Quality in Philadelphia
Weir described the city’s program that automatically measures its quality every minute at 13 stations throughout Philadelphia. It monitors the changing levels of ozone and particle pollution in the air and classifies them by codes that reflect their potential health impacts. The four quality levels are Good (code green), Moderate (code yellow), Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (code orange), and Unhealthy (code red).
Although the air that we breathe today is cleaner than the yellow smog that made my eyes water in Pittsburgh in 1946, it still contains unacceptable levels of pollutants that are hazardous to health, both outside and inside homes and buildings.
The Air Quality Partnership (www.dvrpc.org/a1qpartnership/AQhealth.htm) advises that, “When ozone concentrations are forecast to be in the orange range (May through September), sensitive populations should limit their outdoor activities. When ozone levels are predicted to be in the red range everyone should limit outdoor activity. When particle pollution levels are forecast to be high, sensitive populations (code orange) and/or the general population (code red) should limit all strenuous indoor and outdoor activities.”
The Earth’s Atmosphere and Global Warming
Architects John Gibbons and Kikki Bollender spoke as representatives of the American Institute of Architects. Their presentation focused on another aspect of air quality, i.e., the effects of growing levels of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere and global warming.
They presented a Power-Point presentation entitled Sustainable Design and Development Codes that defined “green buildings” as structures and their surrounding landscapes that are designed, constructed and maintained to decrease the use of energy and water, to preserve non-renewable natural resources, to improve the efficiency and longevity of building systems, and to reverse the emissions of greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil-fuels — oil, natural gas, and coal.
Their data showed that “buildings are the largest single contributor to the production of greenhouse gases.” Of all greenhouse gases produced, buildings produced 48 percent, industry 27 percent, and transportation 25 percent. They also showed that 76 percent of all power-plant generated electricity is used to operate buildings, while industry consumes 23 percent and transportation only 1 percent.
The conclusion I drew from the above data is this: As much as we are concerned about the greenhouse gases produced by cars, trucks, trains, and planes, we should be far more concerned about the vast quantities contributed by buildings. By these measures, the overwhelming majority of existing buildings are anything but “green.” In fact, they are the single largest source of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.
Gibbons and Bollender went on to talk about a new wave of interest among architects and builders in methods of building to save energy and to replace existing fossil fuel sources (oil, gas, and coal) with energy from renewable sources like wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, and nuclear energy. These renewable sources have a great advantage over fossil fuels in that they do not contribute greenhouse gases to the earth’s atmosphere and therefore do not cause global warming. In addition, they can be regenerated, unlike fossil fuels which are in finite supply.
Your Carbon Footprint
The mysterious term “carbon footprint” refers to the quantity of carbon dioxide that you as an individual are responsible for putting into the atmosphere by your use of fossil fuels, either directly or indirectly. For example, when you drive your gasoline burning car, the CO2 that comes out of your car’s exhaust pipe finds its way directly to the earth’s atmosphere. When you turn on your oil or gas-burning heater in your home, the C02 that comes out of your chimney does the same. When you turn on your household appliances you are producing CO2 indirectly, if the electricity comes from a power plant that burns oil, natural gas, or coal. If, on the other hand, you have purchased 100 percent “green” power that is generated by wind turbines, you are not contributing to global warming at all.
The Greening of Friends Center
You should know about a revolutionary new green project right here in Philadelphia that is making a complete changeover from total reliance on fossil-fuel energy sources to total reliance on renewable energy sources to become fossil-fuel free and carbon neutral. Three Quaker organizations in Center City are engaged in a “green” renovation of their office building at 15th and Race Street. They will replace their existing heating and cooling system with a new system that uses thermal exchange with ground water to heat and cool their building. Some years ago, they also made the decision to buy “green” power generated by wind turbines.
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, their contractor started drilling seven deep standing column geothermal wells in the 15th Street sidewalk between Cherry and Race Streets. These will be very deep wells — 1,500 feet deep. To get an idea of how deep they are think deep as the Empire State Building is high. Although wells of this depth have been drilled in the sidewalks of New York City, these are the first of their kind in Philadelphia.
In addition to the geothermal wells the Friends have also installed photovoltaic solar collector panels on the top of the penthouse. These will generate approximately 10 percent of their electrical energy requirements and thus reduce their electric bills accordingly. Together with the installation of a dozen other energy-saving designs and devices in the coming months, the Friends will reduce their annual energy expenses by an estimated $250,000. When this project is completed in the summer of 2009, the Friends will have reduced their contribution to global warming to zero, becoming entirely fossil-fuel free, and energy independent.
The Economics of Going Green
With the cost of oil hitting a record price of $100 per barrel a week ago, there is a new and compelling economic reason for reducing dependence on fossil fuels or, better, switching to renewable energy to become fossil-fuel free.
For years the primary motivation of green advocates was ecological — reversing global warming and reversing the depletion of natural non-renewable resources. Now we must add to those worthy objectives a new economic objective — reversing dependence on fossil fuel for the health of the economy. With the cost of oil rising at the rate of six to eight percent a year, it would be foolish not to invest in renewable energy.
Consider the case of the Friends Center. When their financial advisors examined the costs of their renovation together with the costs of operating the building over a 20 year period, they found that if they continued to use fossil fuels instead of switching to renewable energy sources it would cost them an additional $5 million. They concluded they simply could not afford to continue using fossil fuels.
The designer of the new geothermal heating and cooling system is Rob Diemer of AKF Engineers. Diemer put it this way, “Think of the new geothermal system as an insurance policy you buy to protect yourself against runaway fossil fuel costs.”
That analysis ultimately gave the Friends the comfort they needed to make a substantial investment in renewable energy. They have long been committed to being good stewards of the environment, or as they say “treading lightly on the earth.”
What Can You Do to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint?
Here are three easy steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint:
Replace your incandescent light bulbs with new compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) now readily available at your local hardware store, Home Depot, Lowes, or PECO. These new bulbs use a third of the energy of the old incandescent bulbs to provide the same amount of light.
Purchase wind-generated “green” power from PECO for an additional cost as low as $2.54 per month. When my wife ordered 100 percent wind power a year ago it added $7.50 to our monthly electric bill—-the cost of purchasing two lattes from Starbucks or two big Macs from McDonald’s.
Take public transit to and from work. For folks living in Germantown, Mt. Airy, and Chestnut Hill this is a “no brainer.” These communities enjoy the convenience of having not one but two regional rail lines that connect their communities to Center City.
Those readers who want to tell their elected officials to embrace green design and planning can do so in many ways. Most effective are letters and e-mails to Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council representatives.
You can also attend Zoning Code Commission meetings and informational sessions which are open to the public. Their scheduled meetings and sessions are posted on their Web site at www.zoningmatters.com.
Finally you can get on their mailing list by sending an e-mail request to Karen Chin at Karen.email@example.com.