Environmental Building Newsbriefs

Environmental Building Newsbriefs

Environmental Building News gets around. This time: U.K. enacts new tax on commercial use of aggregate; new technology for producing photovoltaic cells; Massachusetts creates state sustainability council; new studies on straw-bale homes; employee incentives for carpooling; study finds more good arguments for renewable energy.



Following the example of Denmark, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands, the United Kingdom recently enacted a tax on commercial use of aggregate. The tax affects U.K.-extracted as well as imported sand, gravel, and rock, with some exceptions. To ensure international competitiveness, exported aggregate is exempt from the tax. The U. K. Customs and Excise Department introduced the tax to address societal costs of impacts such as noise, dust, and habitat destruction resulting from aggregate extraction. Shy of the environmental cost of £1.80/ton ($2.75/ton) of primary aggregate extracted estimated by the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the tax is set at £1. 60/ton ($2.45/ton). Revenues will go toward a reduction in corporate National Insurance contributions and the formation of a £35 million ($53.5 million) Sustainability Fund, making the policy revenue-neutral for the government and beneficial to businesses not involved with the extraction of aggregate. The tax should encourage more efficient use of aggregate, including recycling and will, in effect, lower the cost of wood structures, which in the U. K. are considered better environmentally, relative to conventional construction practices.

In an effort to solve the ongoing problem of sourcing raw material for production of photovoltaic (PV) cells, AstroPower, Inc. has teamed up with the Norwegian company Elke to develop a cost-effective process for producing solar-grade silicon directly from quartz. Traditionally, the PV industry has obtained waste silicon from the semiconductor industry, which requires higher-purity silicon than needed for PV cells. As PV production has grown, this waste-stream silicon has become a limiting factor. “Removing these raw material constraints will enable Astro-Power -- and eventually the solar power industry as a whole -- to better meet the demand for solar power technology,” said Dr. Allen Barnett, president and CEO of AstroPower. The initial focus of this joint venture is production of solar-grade silicon for AstroPower’s proprietary Silicon-Film process. Industrial-scale production should be achieved by late 2003 or early 2004.

On July 23, 2002, Governor Jane Swift of Massachusetts signed Executive Order 438 creating a multi-agency State Sustainability Council. The initiative is aimed at ensuring that state agencies consider environmental consequences of their actions and establishing sound environmental practices for state agencies. “We in state government must lead by example,” said Governor Swift in announcing the initiative. The measure builds on the Clean State Initiative (Executive Order 350), which was signed by Governor Weld in 1993. The State Sustainability Council, established through the executive order, will establish sustainability goals, recommend to relevant state offices sustainability priorities, and assist 16 state agencies in the development of sustainability guidance documents. The state sustainability goals will address such issues as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, minimization of solid waste and mercury emissions, and environmentally responsible design and construction of state facilities.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has completed a survey in which straw-bale houses were found to use an average of 21% less space-heating energy than conventional houses. Because comparable conventional homes were not available, the study compared 11 straw-bale homes of various sizes and bale wall types to conventional houses modeled by HOT2000software. Nine of the 11 straw-bale houses performed better than the conventional models, with savings ranging from 4.7 to 38.7%.

Another recent study funded by CMHC examined wood use in straw-bale homes. In the study, wood use in the envelope of a load-bearing straw-bale home in southern Ontario was carefully tracked by the builder and compared with modeled wood use for the exterior envelope of a comparably sized wood-frame home with 2x6 walls. Wood for interior partition walls and interior finish was not included because those usages would be comparable for both straw-bale and conventional houses. The study found that the load-bearing straw-bale home used 32% less total wood. Exterior walls in the straw-bale house used 57% less framing lumber, while the roof system required 11%more framing lumber. (In the straw-bale home, 60% of all lumber use was for the roof system.) The savings in dimensional lumber use totaled 22%, and savings in engineered wood products (OSB and I-joists) 60%. If wood use for interior partition walls and interior finish were included in the comparison, the percentage savings in the straw-bale home would be lower. The study is available in PDF format online.

In an effort to convince employees to carpool, walk, bike, or take public transit to work, Berger/Abam Engineers, a 120-person Seattle consulting firm, provides a car that employees who don’t drive to work can use during the day. According to the July 22, 2002, edition of The Seattle Times, the hybrid Toyota Prius can be signed out at no cost and used for errands, doctor’s appointments, and lunch engagements. A nonprofit organization in Seattle, Commuter Challenge, has been working with King County companies to reduce solo commuting, and the group has been successful in convincing a number of firms to provide a vehicle for daytime use. (The need for a car for occasional daytime trips has been cited as a major obstacle to leaving the car at home.) Other incentives being used to encourage alternatives to solo commuting include subsidized bus passes, showers for bicyclists, more convenient parking for car pools, and higher charges for parking. One impetus for such efforts is Washington State’s Commute Trip Reduction law, enacted in 1991, requiring companies and other organizations with at least 100 dayshift employees to adopt plans to achieve 35% reductions in solo commuting by 2005.

The Portland, Oregon Office of Sustainable Development announced in July the release of Portland LEED, the first locally tailored version of the LEED Rating System to be approved by the U.S. Green Building Council. The new version incorporates Portland ’s stringent Stormwater Management and Erosion Control Manuals as well as the State of Oregon’s Energy Code, allowing developers to achieve LEED credit for meeting or exceeding local standards. Portland LEED also reserves innovation credits for projects that recognize the city’s land-use and transportation goals through mixed-use development, reduced automobile use, stormwater management, and construction and demolition waste management. Both the City of Portland and the Portland Development Commission require city-financed development to achieve Portland LEED certification. The Portland LEED supplement guidance document is available online.

According to a California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) Charitable Trust report, energy produced from renewable sources is cheaper over the long term and creates far more jobs than energy from natural gas power plants. The report, Renewables Work: Job Growth from Renewable Energy Development in California, combines the results of economic studies with the findings of operating renewable-energy facilities. According to the re-port, building 5, 900 MW of renewable energy capacity (including wind, geothermal, solar PV, solar thermal, and landfill/digester gas facilities)would generate 120,000 person-years of employment over 30 years of operation. Building the same capacity of natural gas power plants, by comparison, would create only one-fourth as much employment and require $10.3 billion in gas purchases. Additionally, because renewable power sources do not require continual fuel purchases, a higher percentage of their generating costs stays in the local economy as wages. The report is available in PDF format online.

Copyright 2002 BuildingGreen, Inc., publisher of Environmental Building News, a GreenBiz News Affiliate.