Reduce Your Footprint, Increase Your Profits

A new car wash facility in my home town of Williston caught my eye recently. Look below: you can see why.

Eco Car Wash exterior

When I read up on the ecological details of the business, I was more deeply impressed. As you probably know, one of the dangers with a business like this is “greenwashing”–that is, adopting a couple of seemingly environmentally-friendly practices while running a deeply unsustainable business and calling it “green.” “Eco-friendly” products have proliferated in recent years that range from questionable to downright horrible in terms of environmental impact. In this case, however we appear to be looking at the real deal.

If the biggest environmental impacts of a car wash are water, energy, construction, and the gas people expend to drive there, Eco Car Wash seems to be a win on all four fronts. They gather rain and snow and process their water on site, relieving the municipal water system of a potentially large impact; their transparent design and high-efficiency equipment minimize electrical use; their building is constructed from recycled and reclaimed materials; and their location is on the commute and errand path of many local residents.

Eco Car Wash interior

Washing your car at an ecologically-minded commercial car wash can save large amounts of water compared to doing so at home. Unfortunately, the total calculation of impact has to take a lot more elements into account: in terms of carbon footprint, energy usage and production of equipment and buildings have a much greater footprint than cold water (though if you’re in an area with serious water problems, carbon footprint may not be your top ecological concern). A car wash facility certainly does involve a substantial amount of energy and materials, compared to a garden hose. Since a facility like Eco Car Wash washes on average 45,750 cars per year, however, managing energy well seems like the total environmental impact is well justified, especially taking into account the importance of preventing rust on cars in terms of preventing cars from having to be junked (adding to the waste stream and requiring huge resources to manufacture new units) unnecessarily.

Eco Car Wash charges $8-$21 for a wash, which makes its pricing about average for the industry (for in-tunnel washes) despite the ecological advantages, according to StatisticBrain.com.

It makes sense that their prices should be normal even though they have presumably spent much more than the usual amount on constructing the facility, because their energy and water management practices should save them a bundle over time. While a car wash is an unusually obvious example for this kind of practice, it’s an approach virtually any business can take to be more profitable, as demonstrated by the massive energy retrofit done at the Empire State Building a few years ago: see Empire State Building’s Energy Savings Beat Forecast.

If I sound like an advertisement for this business, you’ll have to pardon me: it’s rare that I see a strictly commercial operation that takes sustainability to these lengths.

Model for Success: How Vermont Towns Can Contribute to the State’s Renewable Energy Portfolio

This guest post is from Jamison Ervin, a member of Waterbury LEAP, the only Vermont town energy committee to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. You may have read my earlier post about Jamie and her family, What One Vermont Family Did to Massively Reduce Their Climate Change Impact. She lives in Duxbury and can be contacted at jervin@sover.net.

A solar installation in Waterbury, from suncommon.com

A solar installation in Waterbury; photo from suncommon.com

The towns of Waterbury and Duxbury are one rooftop away from achieving the goal they established last April: to double residential solar capacity. The increase to 338 residential kilowatts has moved Waterbury and Duxbury into fifth and second places, respectively, for residential solar per capita across all Vermont towns. At the same time, business solar installations have increased nearly 80 percent, to 363 kilowatts.

This means that Waterbury and Duxbury now rank among the top ten towns statewide for total per capita solar production.

What has driven this progress? As predicted by the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, four factors are critical — public outreach, technological advances, innovative financing options and favorable public policies.

To educate the public, Waterbury LEAP (Local Energy Action Partnership), the energy committee serving both towns, holds an energy fair that draws more than 600 people every April. This year, dubbed the  Waterbury/Duxbury Solar Year, we ramped up these efforts to include a summer solar fest with free music, pizza and ice cream; radio ads and newspaper articles; brochures, flyers and posters; window displays; farmers’ market booths; open houses; and direct outreach to businesses, select boards, school boards and schools.

You name it, we tried it.

We are not certain that we can claim credit for any of this year’s installations. But we do know that most residents in our town have heard about the benefits of installing solar panels — increased savings on electricity, decreased carbon emissions, more local jobs and greater energy independence.

The second critical factor is the improvement in technology. The efficiency of solar panels has increased dramatically. Some of today’s panels can generate twice as many watts compared to those of only a few years ago — and the price of solar panels has decreased by half. Solar installation companies and their customers both have benefitted from this improved technology.

The availability of innovative finance options is also a key factor driving the growth of solar capacity. For example, the Vermont State Employee Credit Union has a new low-interest solar loan allowing homeowners to finance the cost of solar at reasonable rates. And SunCommon, a new solar installer in Waterbury responsible for 23 of the 30 new installations in Waterbury and Duxbury, has a lease model wherein homeowners install solar panels with no money down, at monthly costs equivalent to or less than their electric bills.

Green Lantern, a Waterbury-based green investment company, has created a solar tax-equity fund that allowed the owners of Cold Hollow Cider Mill to install a 149-kilowatt array — saving them more than $2,000 annually in electric bills, without any up-front costs.

The fourth factor is a favorable policy environment. Virtually everyone who installed solar panels in 2012 took advantage, either directly or indirectly, of the 30 percent federal tax credit. Most businesses were also able to depreciate their solar investment over 5 years instead of 30, leading to a much faster payback period.

On top of this, most customers who installed solar panels received a state rebate of 55 cents per watt, as well as a sales tax exemption.

In addition, all Vermont electric companies are required to purchase up to 100 percent of the solar-generated power produced by their customers at 20 cents per kilowatt hour — even if they sell electricity at a lower rate, which most do.

How does this local success story fit into the broader context of local and state energy consumption and production? Since Waterbury consumes some 58,000 megawatt hours annually, the town’s 589 kilowatts of solar power provide less than 1 percent of Waterbury’s total electricity needs.

The state’s goal, as articulated in the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, is for Vermont to switch from its current use of 23 percent renewables to 90 percent by 2050.

Even with electricity companies adding renewable energy to their portfolio, towns will have to shoulder some of the burden of contributing to this goal. That means we must radically increase the number of residential, municipal and business solar installations statewide.

Four policy changes could make this happen. First, allow homeowners and businesses to sell back excess energy to the grid at wholesale rates, above and beyond their own electricity consumption. This step, which allowed Germany to become the global solar leader, encourages homeowners and businesses to add extra panels to their arrays because they are virtually guaranteed a modest but reliable return on investment.

Second, help subsidize the cost of upgrading outdated electric lines. South-facing roofs and open fields are in limited supply. Investors in large arrays of 150 kilowatts or more should not have to bear the burden of upgrading electricity lines, simply by accident of geography. Renewable energy should be considered a public good, and we should subsidize the full cost accordingly.

Third, simplify and streamline current permitting processes. Raise the residential permitting threshold of 10 kilowatts to allow larger residential arrays. Streamline the Section 248 process, which is triggered by arrays of 150 kilowatts and larger. Allow arrays of larger than 500 kilowatts to sell their excess energy back to the grid. And raise the cap of 4 percent for companies to purchase solar energy from their customers. These changes would help bring larger and more systems online faster.

Finally, towns should be proactive in identifying potential sites for large solar installations in their town plans and should encourage municipal, business, residential and school solar installations.

With these modest policy changes, Vermont’s role as a national leader in renewable energy would be secured — and we might even achieve our ambitious energy goals.

The Easy Way to Fight Climate Change? Not Likely

solar

The kind of lifestyle that would save us from climate change disaster might not be too hard to picture. I picture drastically reduced car usage and drastically increased mass transit options, heavy dependence on local food, gardens in most backyards, solar panels on roofs (for electricity, hot water, and heating), forests of wind turbines, a huge push for energy efficiency and conservation, completely revamped industrial processes, a change in entertainment from electronic and passive to social and engaged, and more than any of that, embracing a much less luxurious–but incontrovertibly happier–lifestyle.

To life so that we’re really fighting climate change, I believe we have to give up a lot of the assumptions and expectations we currently have, but that the things we’re giving up are the kinds of things that research seems to show are not nearly as important to us as they seem. Our culture is heavily focused on electronic entertainment, on heavy use of travel, and on consumption, consumption, consumption. None of that really makes us happy. Sure, it might provide some temporary pleasure, but it doesn’t address any of the basic human needs that contribute to happiness. (If you’re interested, take a look at my article “The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness.”)

So far, so good: living that kind of lifestyle doesn’t worry me at all if it’s according to that mental picture, everyone changing the way they live together, understanding and responsibility spreading throughout the culture.

As if.

That would be the easy way to deal with the problem–“easy” in terms of the toll it would take on us individually, not in terms of the cost or amount of effort involved, which of course would be huge, though manageable if we were all to pitch in together. In truth, though, I don’t think there’s much chance we’re going to take the easy way. People are used to living the lifestyles they have now, and people who have the most privileged lifestyle–and therefore who have the most impact–have the least motivation to wake up and smell the catastrophe.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

― Margaret Mead

So if it’s not going to be the easy way, what are the hard ways? I believe there are three of them.

Choice number one is nobody doing anything until it’s much too late. Many of us die; the rest of us are subjected, almost every one, to lifelong suffering as we scrabble to feed ourselves, maintain homes that won’t be destroyed by weather, fight off disease of spreading pest populations, and make our peace with all of the suffering and death we see in the lives of our loved ones.

Choice number two is a little better, though not much: choice number two is our culture waking up to the problem when it’s late, but not too late. In this situation, the poorest and least powerful people will have to give things up first, and the most privileged people will give things up last. We’ll be dragged, kicking and screaming, into some half-baked semblance of sustainability. It might be enough to save us, though not to shield us from all of the trouble we will have bought already. Food will be scarce, energy will be too expensive to afford, and infrastructure will breaks down in many places where nobody’s able to pay to keep it working. Dark Ages, here we come.

Choice number three is still hard, but as you can probably guess from choices one and two, it’s my favorite of the “hard ways.” In choice number three, some of us push very hard now to model how a sustainable lifestyle looks. We figure out in our own lives how to live sustainably and throw ourselves energetically into doing so even though almost everybody else will just go on partying as usual. We would need to be able to look around us at people who are still driving SUVs and blasting the air conditioning with the window open and chowing down on McDonald’s and to continue living with care and consciousness even when nobody else is required to.

"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

― Albert Einstein

It doesn’t really seem fair. After all, apart from a sense of satisfaction and maybe a certain amount of preparedness, living sustainably doesn’t benefit the people who do it any more than it benefits their unsustainable neighbors.

Yet the unfair way is the way to go. If it were easy, or fair, or obvious, everyone would already be doing it. It’s not easy, and it’s unfair, and most people will look at that sustainable lifestyle and dismiss us a eco-freaks.

Here’s what I’ve been asking myself: How do we think about that in a way that drives us forward rather than holds us back? How do we think about what we’re creating instead of what we’re giving up?

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

― Barack Obama

(We can debate whether or not Mr. Obama has embraced this point of view himself yet, but either way, that statement is on the money.)

I think I have an answer for that, for how we can look at all of this work and begin to feel all “Bring it on!” about it. I’ll post about that soon. In the mean time … your thoughts?

Photo by Wonderlane