Since the mid-’70s, I have been committed to building the best, most sustainable buildings. But over time it became clear that a town full of super green buildings was not necessarily a green community. There are many other important indicators of sustainability: how citizens move about; the amount of trees and green spaces; where food is grown and processed; types of recreation; how water is collected, stored, and used; whether waste or even sewage is treated as a resource or not; and how and where electrical power is produced.
In California, we have put a lot of attention on efficient buildings; consequently, we have probably the best assortment of high-performance buildings in the world. Only recently have we started paying attention to some of these other factors.
A key principle of sustainability is finding an approach that solves multiple problems. El Estero, Santa Barbara’s waste treatment plant, has done this by setting up a cogeneration facility on-site. The collected solid waste is fed into a digester to produce methane, which then is used to generate 70 percent of the electricity needed to run the waste plant. Moreover, the residual solids become safe, nutrient-rich compost that is used on city parks and gardens.
Another example of this sustainable principle is found in Scandinavia. They have long built houses to stringent energy-performance standards. Even more impressive, however, are the “fuel-flexible” power plants that they have constructed, which are capable of burning fossil fuels, biomass, trash, or biogas (mostly methane harvested from the sewage system). They are frequently located in urban neighborhoods so that the captured “waste” heat can be distributed as hot water through a network of insulated pipes for space heating and domestic hot water in the nearby buildings.
Such district systems are like having one large, super-efficient, low-cost boiler for an entire neighborhood. Contrast this with each building having its own furnace and water heater like we have here in the States. We tend to think in terms of high-performance buildings; in Scandinavia, they tend to think in terms of high-performance neighborhoods, cities, and regions.
Because of the centralized efficiencies of these heat and power facilities and their easy ability to switch fuels, they reduce both the cost to consumers and carbon emissions. Stay tuned because we will be seeing a lot of these multifunction operations make more efficient use of resources and address climate change.