Getting real with green: affordable, eco-friendly options for rural builders

By Oliver Witte —

Down here in the trenches, far removed from national catastrophes like Solyndra and Ener1, Inc., rural builders are wondering how to respond to today’s very legitimate energy concerns such as conservation, renewable energy, alternative sources, greenhouse gas and carbon footprint and still make money.

It’s time to get real: Solar collectors, windmills and much of what gets lumped under “green” are not economic for most projects in most parts of the country. If you have a project with an energy component that makes economic sense within a reasonable amount of time, tell us about it. We’d love to make a fuss over you.

In the meantime, there is good news. Some forward-looking vendors are preparing guides that show how to navigate in the regulatory environment to come, and others are offering incentives to encourage good practices. Examples of both follow, although don’t expect to see subsidies anything like Solyndra ($535 million down the tube) or Ener1 (which vaporized $118 billion) but still what we’d call serious money.

IGA store, Mahomet, Illinois

Renovation of the IGA store in Mahomet, Ill., was assited by a grant from Ameren Illinois. - TCI Architects, Engineers, Contractor photo

One component of environmental legislation that is getting attention these days is carbon. Builders should pay attention because proposed legislation shifts attention from the post-construction decisions to pre-construction. One day soon, building codes might require designers and builders to evaluate construction materials on the basis of which ones leave the least carbon footprint.

The term “carbon footprint” refers to the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) we use and release into the atmosphere in the course of our normal activities. It’s a matter of concern because carbon dioxide is the gas primarily responsible for global warming. If carbon dioxide can be minimized, global warming can be minimized – or so the argument goes.

The argument caught the attention of WoodWorks, a cooperative venture of major North American wood associations. WoodWorks’ reasoning goes like this: Trees, through photosynthesis, absorb carbon from the air and store it. The carbon is retained when a tree is cut into timber and another is planted to take its place – which is not a bad definition of renewable energy. Wood both captures and stores carbon, contributing to the objective of low or net-zero energy buildings.

Fun fact: 50 percent of a tree is carbon that was absorbed as the tree was growing, according to Dwight Yochim, national director of WoodWorks.

WoodWorks obviously would like builders to use more wood, but now it can support its marketing with a method that quantifies the competitive benefits of wood in minimizing a building’s carbon footprint. The method is a new online tool that enables builders to calculate with some precision the global benefits of wood.

“Although a building’s operational energy use is the first thing a lot of people think of, it’s really just one element,” Yochim said. “Increasing attention today is being directed at the energy required to build the building.”

Yochim said he anticipates that future building codes will require builders to justify their pre-construction choices in materials. The calculator is intended to get builders thinking more broadly about environmental impact.

The calculator, which went online in November, can be found at It works best if the builder prepares a detailed take-off and materials list in advance.

But isn’t wood expensive these days? Sure, Yochim concedes, which is why WoodWorks created a companion cost calculator on the same site. The cost calculator makes use of R.S. Means data to arrive at a high-confidence estimate. Pairing the calculators makes sense, Yochim said, because it’s smart to go green and to cut costs at the same time.

One of the advantages of having the two calculators available together online is that they enable the builder to experiment with what-if scenarios. When decisions have been made, the details can be sent to a printer.

Builders who need help with either the cost calculator or the carbon calculator are invited to call 866-966-3448. Use of both tools is free.

Incentives for geothermal
Remember back in the 1960s and 1970s when electric companies were subsidizing all-electric buildings? The situation has reversed. Electric companies, such as Ameren Illinois, now are offering incentives to replace systems that rely on utility-generated power such as resistance heating.

Ameren Illinois is budgeted to offer $19 million this year alone for non-residential renovations that replace or reduce utility-generated power, according to Leigh Morris, a spokesman for Ameren Illinois. One popular technique goes by the hifalutin name of geothermal, which is a way of saying “ground-source heat pump.”

For example, Morris cited the renovation of a locally owned IGA store in Mahomet, Ill. Its renovation, which was completed in November of 2010, was assisted by a grant of $25,591 from Ameren Illinois. The program, called ActOnEnergy, has been available to Ameren Illinois customers since 2008.

The building team included an innovative owner, Brooks Marsh, and a forward-looking design/builder, TCI Architects, Engineers, Contractor of La Crosse, Wis., operating as construction manager under a negotiated contract.

Marsh said grocery stores offer an ideal opportunity to save money and to protect the environment at the same time. Grocery and food stores, he said, use more kilowatt hours per square foot than any other commercial business – more even than health facilities, which rank second. Marsh cited this breakdown of what consumes electricity in a typical grocery store:

Refrigeration 57%
Lighting 19%
Water heating 5%.
Cooling 4%
Heating 2%
Other 13%

Marsh said he decided to work with Ameren Illinois because he was being eaten alive by his energy bills – more than $100,000 a year for a store with 23,500 square feet of floor area. Meanwhile, he was planning an addition. Marsh and TCI agreed that it was time to innovate.

“The first-time use of ground-source geothermal to cool compressors for refrigeration is ground breaking for the grocery industry, cutting compression head pressure by nearly half,” Marsh said. “With the expansion of the store to 40,000 square feet, the savings will be over $85,000 a year.” Marsh calculated his internal rate of return at 290 percent.

Results from the first year of operation indicate that the renovation has saved 877,500 kilowatt hours of electricity – enough to serve 80 homes.

The program is funded by a small charge added to electric bills. The electric company is willing because the state legislature mandated it, because it reduces the need to increase generating capacity and because it is good policy, Morris said. The only catch is that the builder must register with the utility as a “program ally.” Details are available at occasional symposiums sponsored by the utility or online at

Incentives are generally not available for new construction. RB

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