The greening of western New York
Electricity-producing wind towers are popping up on the hills south of Naples; Wal-Mart stores from Macedon to Hopewell are recycling tons of plastic that used to go to landfills; and the president of Finger Lakes Community College this month signed a pledge that the school would strive to bring its carbon emissions to zero within two years.
These are just a few of the changes taking place locally that reflect a movement to “go green.” And we’re far from alone.
Just last week, the state League of Conservation Voters launched a political action committee that will give money to candidates pursuing policies and legislation addressing climate change. Meanwhile, New York Mets executives last week announced a range of “green” designs that will be used in the team’s new baseball stadium, including building with recycled steel and installing low-flow plumbing and energy-efficient field lighting.
Back on the homefront, municipalities and homeowners are beginning to make changes that qualify as “green.” And according to one promoter, the reasons are fueled by economics as much as — if not more than — altruistic motives to protect the environment. Not surprising, as the price for a barrel of oil now exceeds $110.
Seeing the light
One recent afternoon, a compact two-story office building in Bristol was buzzing with phone calls and visitors stopping in to place equipment orders and seek advice. The products: solar hydraulic systems, high-performance boilers and supplies for installing geothermal systems and radiant-heat floors. Mark Tolbert, a baby boomer whose own home in Bloomfield is outfitted with a geothermal unit, was one of the Eagle Mountain staffers fielding customers.
Methods of heating and cooling homes that don’t rely on burning oil, natural gas or other products that pollute the air are beginning to catch on, said Tolbert, the company’s director of business development. Eagle Mountain makes and installs geothermal systems and other heating and cooling methods using new technologies.
Geothermal uses the earth’s constant temperatures to heat and cool buildings by transferring heat from the ground or water into buildings during winter and then reversing the process in summer.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, geothermal units are the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean and cost-effective systems for temperature control. While the majority of homes still use traditional furnaces and air conditioners, geothermal pumps are becoming more popular, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Tolbert said the percentage of new homes in the region incorporating renewable-energy systems is currently in the “single digits,” though Eagle Mountain is working to change that.
Interest is keen as eco-consciousness has gone beyond the hippy-esque, do-it-yourself projects of the 1970s, he said. That’s why Eagle Mountain will open its Center for Green Technology this summer across Route 64 from the company’s offices. The facility will be dedicated to research, education and manufacturing of alternative-energy products. The center will show how the various renewable-energy methods can work together to provide more efficient, self-sustaining and — over the long haul — affordable means of heating and cooling.
The 22,000-square-foot facility will be equivalent to a building 4,000 square feet or smaller in terms of its consumption of natural resources, according to the company. Geothermal sensor coils planted under a pond will provide warm or cool air for the building; solar panels will provide hot water and supplement electricity; toilets and faucets will use rainwater —with urinals not using any water — and a garden on the roof will help capture rainwater and insulate the building.
Tolbert cited an example of savings and costs associated with converting a home to a geothermal system. Typically, a heating bill for a family of four in a medium-sized, roughly 2,500-square-foot home, using natural gas, oil or propane, runs between $200 and $350 a month, he said. But with a geothermal system, it can cost less than $100 a month. The cost of converting to a geothermal system for that size home would run between $16,000 and $20,000, paying for itself in five to eight years, he said.
Off the grid
Dr. Geoff Hallstead, a Canandaigua dentist, fulfilled a dream last year when he moved his family into a new green home. For years, the Hallsteads had heated their home pretty much like most families, burning fuel. In their case, they had heated a 1,700-square-foot house with propane. Now the family of four — including Hallstead’s wife, Jane, and their kids Ricky, 15, and Serica, 9 — live in a 4,000-square-foot home heated and cooled by a geothermal system that uses a 10-acre pond.
“I wanted to leave as little footprint as possible,” said Hallstead of his green goal. Another motivation: “I didn’t want to pay energy bills,” he said.
The initial investment was a big one — Hallstead said he put between $50,000 and $60,000 into his geothermal system and radiant flooring, an energy-efficient way to heat through the floor. But he looks forward to the payback a few years down the road. He also plans to eliminate his electricity bills by eventually adding solar panels to heat his hot water and putting up a residential wind tower to meet the home’s electricity needs.
Hallstead’s new, two-story “green” home looks pretty traditional — while, over on Whalen Road in neighboring East Bloomfield, Dave and Maria Fulmer’s new house looks anything but.
The Fulmers’ half-buried concrete building has big solar panels on its earth-covered roof. The 2,400-square-foot house is actually two buried concrete mini-domes and uses a solar and windmill-based energy system.
Interest in their $500,000 home comes from all directions, said Dave Fulmer. “We have a lot of kids interested in technology,” he said. Others are adults considering wind or solar systems for their own homes. An open house they held after moving in last year drew 450, said Fulmer, who receives several calls a month from people wanting information or to see the place — so the Fulmers hold periodic, small-group open houses.
Meanwhile, the Fulmers are going through the process of tweaking their energy system so it can work up to capacity. Unlike conventional heating systems, adjusting temperature with their air-exchange system is not a nearly-instant process, said Dave. “It takes a lot of experimentation to balance heat and cool,” he said. It will take an entire year, experiencing all the seasons, to adjust the temperature to where they want it.
Switching gears now — from high-tech “green” homes to more modest, conventional designs — one Finger Lakes Community College assistant professor is making waves. Todd Marsh, an architect and assistant professor of architectural design and drafting, recently won the Flower City Habitat for Humanity “green architecture” design contest. His design for a 1,200-square-foot house will be a model for 10 homes the non-profit housing organization will build in summer 2009. The idea was to show that “green can be affordable,” said Marsh, who lives in Farmington.
Marsh incorporated energy-saving features such as locating main windows and living rooms on the south side, where they will receive the most sunshine, and designing interior walls and doors to separate bedrooms from main living areas so residents can shut off heat in half the house.
The home is heated with a high-efficiency gas furnace.
The wood frame uses the least amount of wood possible, with 24 inches between wall studs instead of the traditional 16 inches. That also allows for more insulation, said Marsh. “Over the entire building, it adds up to making a difference,” he said.
Tile is used for bathroom floors because of durability, and either bamboo or hardwood floors the rest of the house. Bamboo is a particularly good choice, said Marsh. It costs about the same as oak, or about $3 per square foot, but bamboo trees regenerate in five years, while oaks take 75. Outside, the driveway is of concrete bricks, which prevent runoff because the ground can absorb rainwater between slabs.
Marsh estimated building the house would cost $120,000 to $140,000, factoring in the cost of all labor and materials. The house would cost about the same to build without the energy-saving features, said Marsh. The savings will come later, he said, as this design will reduce energy costs by 25 to 30 percent.
Down in Naples, another project geared for those on a modest income is going green. Steven Richards of Honeoye, the new owner of Naples Creek Apartments, plans to cut energy costs at the senior-apartment complex by using a solar-powered electric system to heat the building and its water supply.
“This is really a dream of mine, to create affordable yet luxury living for senior citizens,” said Richards, whose plan also calls for nature trails and a putting green at the site.
Reusable shopping bags
Not everyone thought East Bloomfield was making the right choice last year when officials decided to install a geothermal system in the town’s recreation center. After all, replacing the existing liquid propane heater would have cost about $25,000, said Zoning Officer Michael Woodruff. That would have been nearly half the cost of converting the 7,000-square-foot building to geothermal.
But the $45,000 investment is already showing positive results, said Woodruff. So far, cost comparisons between this winter and last show “the savings is substantial,” said Woodruff. Under the old system, it cost between $500 and $600 a month to heat the building in cold months, he said. Woodruff said costs so far this winter are averaging $146 a month.
Woodruff said the town made the right move. “If we are talking green, maybe we should lead the way,” he said.
Meanwhile, when Wegmans Food Markets introduced reusable shopping bags last year, it wasn’t surprising to most shoppers who associate the Rochester-based grocery chain with healthy choices such as buying organic and eating more fruits and vegetables. But Wal-Mart?
The big-box retail chain — and world’s largest public corporation — has been criticized on a number of fronts. Those include attacks that Wal-Mart demands its suppliers sell it goods at such a low price, that the suppliers can only do so by outsourcing their work to low-wage factories overseas. But when it comes to going green, even its critics may be hard-pressed to find fault.
From its recycling programs to its installation of sensors to reduce electricity use, Wal-Mart stores across the country are changing the way they do business. One example is a new way of packaging products by pressing plastic between stacks of cardboard when bundling them for transportation. The Wal-Mart store in Hopewell is one of 326 Wal-Marts that have begun using the method. So far, the move has diverted 1,100 tons of plastic from landfills, according the company, enough to fill a football field 38 feet deep.
Wal-Mart is also working with suppliers to reduce waste, according to the company. Wal-Mart stated it worked with one of its toy suppliers last year to help reduce packaging on 16 items. “We were able to use 230 fewer shipping containers to distribute their products, saving about 356 barrels of oil and 1,300 trees,” according to the corporate Web site. “By broadening this initiative to 255 items, this year we hope to save 1,000 barrels of oil, 3,800 trees, and millions of dollars in transportation costs.”
Sam Fichera, assistant manager of Hopewell’s Wal-Mart, is a fan of the new methods. “It’s fantastic,” he said. Wal-Mart is often “portrayed in a bad light,” he said, “but Wal-Mart is good to the community.”
Just across Routes 5 and 20 from Wal-Mart, Kim Babcock is a key figure in helping Finger Lakes Community College become green.
As a conservation technician and head of the college’s Sustainability Committee, Babcock was behind the college’s Go Green kickoff this month. The college is beginning with basic changes like distributing more recycling bins on campus, cutting down on paper use and converting to light bulbs that use 40 percent less electricity.
The college is “trying to do what is best for the environment, society and the economy,” said Babcock. The idea is to incorporate those three elements and still “leave something behind for future generations,” she said.