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Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


We sure had some bam with our breakfast last Wednesday! On February 22nd, our team was delighted to convene a select group of Omaha leaders for a breakfast discussion on a leading-edge sustainability topic: net zero emissions.

The breakfast event was the first in a quarterly series of thought leadership forums we are hosting under the name “Green, Eggs and Bam!” Future topics will likely include sustainable transportation systems, waste reduction, biomimicry, resiliency planning and other cutting-edge sustainability topics. Check out the video highlights of the event here, and the full hour-long presentation here.

We initiated the Green, Eggs & Bam! series after contemplating how we can move sustainability initiatives forward in the Omaha region. As my colleague and Managing Principal Craig Moody explained, “As a consulting business, most of what we do is through our clients. This time we wanted to independently bring together the right people in the room to see what sparks we could generate to move net zero emissions forward in our community.”

We noted an important distinction between net zero energy and net zero emissions:

  • Net zero energy refers to a single building that is highly energy efficient and produces as much clean renewable energy onsite as it consumes over the course of a year.
  • Net zero emissions buildings are ultra-energy efficient and produce as much clean renewable energy onsite or offsite as they consume over the course of a year.

Here in Omaha, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (our client) recently announced a goal to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. Already, they have implemented aggressive energy-saving efforts that have saved them thousands of tons of CO2 emissions, millions of dollars, and aligned with their public health mission. Ken Hansen, Associate Vice-Chancellor of Facilities Management & Planning at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, described how their efforts led to an impressive 25% reduction in energy usage in just five years—and a whopping corresponding savings of $10 million. (We had a little bit to do with this success.)

Countryside Community Church (also our client) plans to build a net zero emissions church building to align with their faith and core values. Countryside is the Christian partner in the new Tri-Faith Initiative, which will bring together a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue and the church on the same Omaha campus in 2018.

Senior Pastor Eric Elnes described the process the congregation went through as they reckoned with the environmental urgency of our time. The result was they decided to significantly expand their ministry around sustainability issues. And that dovetailed with the opportunity to build a new church on the Tri-Faith campus.

“We began to look at how far we could go to make our building sustainable,” Elnes explained. “We realized it was actually achievable to create a net zero building, maybe even a net positive building. And it was amazing what happened once we realized that was actually achievable; people just instantly kind of got it. They said, wait a minute, if we go net zero, or even net positive, suddenly our building is actually a mirror reflection of our theology and our beliefs: you give back to the world, you don’t take from it.”

There was a palpable sense of excitement in the room as guests shared their passion for bringing Omaha forward along these lines and their willingness to collaborate with one another to make it happen.

Mike McMeekin, president of Lamp, Rynearson & Associates, noted that in 2010 the city of Omaha adopted the Environmental Element to its comprehensive master plan, which set out broad energy and emissions goals such as meeting the goal of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Challenge to achieve carbon-neutral buildings by 2030. However, this and many other energy-related goals and strategies from the Environmental Element have lacked leadership toward implementation.

Several attendees noted that the Midtown 2050 effort might present a unique and timely opportunity to create a net zero emissions district. Midtown 2050 is a nonprofit development corporation whose mission is to coordinate and accelerate the next phase of midtown Omaha’s revitalization and progression into a dynamic, transit-oriented urban community.

Sarah Gudeman from Morrissey Engineering noted how important it is to not just focus on a particular building, but on district and regional levels to take advantage of shared renewable generation resources. Zero Emissions Districts provide many more opportunities for achieving net zero energy than a single building.

OPPD is a critical partner for its customers to achieve net zero emissions. By 2018, OPPD will have over 30% of its energy coming from renewable, emission-free sources and according to their Integrated Resource Plan, OPPD will achieve 50% renewable energy by 2023.

The issue of cost for net zero improvements was raised. Ken Hansen noted that the Medical Center has been able to take advantage of federal grant funding in their renovations, he also made it clear that the financial case is extraordinarily strong even without any grant funding as part of the equation. He noted that energy efficiency improvements pay for themselves over a short period of time and joked at the fondness he has won from his Chief Financial Officer.

Attendees noted that strategic risk-taking is a necessary component of achieving zero net emissions. My colleague Daniel Lawse, Chief Century Thinker here at Verdis Group elaborated, “This is a rapidly changing environment in which all of us need to be innovating. We should embrace the concept of ‘failing fast’ in order to learn quickly and create the sustainable future we need. We don’t have time to wait,” he added. “If we don’t build zero-emissions buildings and districts, we lock in current energy and emissions patterns for the lifespan of a building: 80-120 years. On the other hand, if we get this right, we can change the world.”

Watch the full presentation here.

It was a heck of a breakfast. And no one seemed to mind that the eggs were not actually green.

Stay tuned to hear about our next forum tentatively planned for May 2017.

To find out more about how Verdis Group can help you achieve net zero emissions, drop us a line at craig@verdisgroup.com. Or give us a call at 402-681–9458.

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Everyone who cares about the natural environment recycles, right? Paper, plastic, glass…but what about money? It can be almost just as easy to recycle energy investments to address the serious global issue of climate change if you set up a Green Revolving Fund (GRF).

What is a revolving loan fund?
A revolving loan fund is a dedicated funding mechanism used to support specific projects that payback project costs to such fund. Often using cost savings from funded projects, loans given are repaid into the revolving loan fund. Then the money repaid to the revolving fund is lent again to finance additional projects.

What is a green revolving fund?
A green revolving fund (GRF) is a revolving loan fund used to finance projects that have specific ties to energy conservation or efficiency, renewable energy, or other natural resource-saving projects. Specifically tracked savings from projects funded are returned to the green revolving fund to be used for future projects.

How do GRFs perform?
Colleges and universities with GRFs have reported a median return on investment of 28 percent over the life of a typical project (see Sustainable Endowments Institute’s (SEI) Greening the Bottom Line 2012). GRFs are often focused on projects with a payback window of no more than five or ten years. The investments make economic sense. Often the biggest hurdle is working out the mechanisms to allocate savings appropriately within the constructs of a university’s current budgeting and finance structures.

To start brainstorming for high payback projects, review McKinsey & Company’s Global GHG abatement cost curve beyond business-as-usual, in its report Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy. This chart and report provide insight into the investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the highest financial payback. Of course, most everyone knows that changing an incandescent light bulb to a LED often pays back its investment in less than a year, but this report will get you thinking beyond lighting. If the McKinsey & Company report is too academic for you, just start talking to your facilities and maintenance leaders. They know what needs to be replaced and upgraded. Starting from there, look at your options for more efficient technologies. More energy efficient options often cost more upfront, but that additional cost will often be more than recovered in energy savings over the life of the equipment, saving money and reducing emissions.

glf

Image included with permission from Sustainable Endowments Institute

 

Who is using GRFs?
The most common users of GRFs are colleges and universities. AASHE has a database of information about many of the institutions that have started GRFs. The Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) has coordinated The Billion Dollar Green Challenge to encourage colleges, universities and other nonprofits to investment a cumulative total of one billion dollars into green revolving funds. As of July 2016, SEI has $131 million committed from 62 participating institutions. See if your alma mater is on the list, or your child’s dream school. As of July 2016, the University of Vermont boasts the largest GRF, with a $13 million fund started in 2012. They look for projects that pay back within seven years and cost no more than $3 million per project. Harvard University’s well know $12 million fund, established in 2001, has supported nearly 200 projects which now cumulatively save the school over $4 million each year (yes, each year!) on energy bills.

Schools have found that a GRF is a reliable mechanism to support cost-saving capital improvements even in the midst of budget cuts and rising energy costs. GRFs regularly outperform the investment returns for schools’ endowments and thus some endowments have become involved with initial funding support to GRFs.

Are you at a small institution or one that doesn’t have access to millions of dollars? No problem. The range of sizes (both regarding enrolled students and school endowment size) among colleges and universities with successful GRFs suggests that any school could implement a GRF. SEI reported that initial capital investments in GRFs are evenly distributed in the ranges: below $100,000, between $100,000 and $1 million, and above $1 million. The fund I helped start began with only $50,000 and is added to annually from various sources. As a result of projects funded by this GRF and through a number of other small cost behavior-based changes on the campus, the energy bills are down, and the institution is saving more than $400,000 annually on energy costs compared to a business as usual scenario.

How is a GRF formed?
GRFs are formed in many ways. The most common sources of start-up funding are one-time administrative budget allocations, prior efficiency or utility savings, private donations or foundation grants, and endowment funds. Although administrative involvement and support for a GRF is key, students are frequently involved in creating the GRF at colleges and universities.

Verdis Group helped Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (“Omaha’s Zoo”) set up a GRF, starting with seed capital from a grant and growing through utility lighting rebates, recycling-focused grants, direct contributions, and of course energy savings. One of the hurdles the Zoo’s Green Team faced was having money to fund even small sustainability projects, and this fund has almost entirely resolved this issue. Each year projects are selected that are both high payback projects, such as lighting updates, and low or no payback projects, such as adding recycling infrastructure to make recycling easier, faster and more complete. These GRF bundles use the high payback projects to support the projects that don’t financially payback on their own, and everyone is happy—the accountants who are saving money on energy bills, the Green Team who now has funds to make the changes they view as most important, and the environment which benefits from resource conservation and reduced pollution.

How is a GRF administered?
It is important to get your administration and tracking set up before jumping into a GRF. There are many administrative models among GRFs. On college campuses, the governance of the fund often depends upon how it was formed. Typically, a small group oversees the finances of the fund, while a larger, more diverse group reviews project loan applications on an ongoing basis. Funds typically require projects to have a maximum payback period to ensure timely replenishment of principal to the fund. Some funds charge interest while others simply require repayment of the principal. Interest allows the fund to grow organically over time; however growth can also come from additional external contributions or allocations from operating funds. Other funds require a percentage of real energy savings to be paid to the fund even after the principal amount of the loan is returned, allowing the fund to grow from the additional savings.

At Omaha’s Zoo, Verdis Group currently administers the GRF in partnership with the Zoo’s accounting group. The Zoo wanted its GRF to financially benefit its general operating budget and serve as a continuing funding source for green projects. Thus, savings in the Zoo’s GRF projects are allocated with a percentage to the Omaha Zoo’s general operating budget and the remainder to replenish the GRF. Since the creation of the Zoo’s fund, SEI has developed a GRF tracking system (GRITS 1.5) that helps institutions manage and analyze project-level energy, financial and carbon data without developing a new process or tool just for the GRF tracking. SEI’s experience with GRFs is exceptional and the GRITS tracking tool has made setting up and tracking a GRF even simpler.

What are common GRF goals?
A GRF can focus on energy efficiency goals, such as reducing energy expenses and cost savings (a.k.a., fighting climate change with the bonus of saving money). In other cases, the GRF may support innovation and engagement projects that do not have direct significant financial payback. In the latter example, a GRF is replenished by grants or other funding, rather than repayment of project savings. GRFs are often operated as hybrid funds that fund both high payback projects along side engagement projects with low or hard-to-measure payback.

At Omaha’s Zoo, a hybrid fund was formed because engaging the staff and providing funds to implement staff-generated green projects was important. Yet, ensuring the revolving nature of the fund endured was critical because an ongoing source of contributions beyond savings was not guaranteed. Verdis Group works with the Omaha Zoo annually to analyze potential projects, determine project paybacks, and guide the Omaha Zoo’s GRF selection committee toward a group of annual projects that meet financial payback, employee engagement, and environmental goals.

So get out there and start recycling something even more interesting than those old aluminum cans – recycle your energy investments!

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At Verdis we are all driven to reduce our impact on the environment; at work and at home. Everyday, we work with clients to develop and implement changes to reduce energy use, reduce waste, recycle more, and simply reduce our collective impact on the natural environment. Beyond working with our clients, all of us individually pursue our passion to make the environment healthier in other ways. Craig chairs the group Mode Shift Omaha working to broaden active transportation options in Omaha, and Daniel serves on the Metro Transit Authority Board. I’ve been working on my personal impact on the environment, and have been building my dream home in the most sustainable manner we could.

House

What were we able to accomplish from a sustainability perspective on our new home?

 

My husband and I are quite proud of our HERS 32 Rating.  A Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rating is a score that compares a home’s energy use to a modeled house that is the same as your house, but built to 2004 International Energy Conservation Code. For a HERS rating, the lower the better. A home that scores zero is a Net Zero home, meaning it produces as much energy as it uses, typically through solar or wind power. Our HERS score of 32 means that our house is 68% more efficient than the HERS reference/modeled home. The U.S. Department of Energy determined that a typical resale home scores 130 on the HERS Index, so we are 98% more efficient than a typical resale home! My understanding is that only a handful of homes in Nebraska receive a HERS score this low on an annual basis, and once we add solar – net zero here we come!

 

Here are the highlights of changes we made from a typical home, which make our home more energy efficient and lessen our environmental impact:

Mechanical Systems

  • Open loop geothermal heat pump uses the 52 degree ground water temperature to heat and cool the home. We don’t need an air conditioner! And we expect our heating & cooling bills to be only $39 a month on average. The cost of this system is significantly supplemented by the Federal Tax credit.
  • Hybrid heat pump water heater uses the energy in our basement’s air to heat our hot water (along with electricity). This water heater is twice as efficient as a regular hot water heater (expecting to cost only $9 a month for hot water heating).
  • A variable frequency drive (VFD) on the well pump allows the pump to use only the energy needed to pump the amount of water needed at the time, instead of only having two options of “on full speed” or “off.”
  • A desuperheater transfers excess heat from the geothermal system to the water heater to preheat the water.
  • An Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) acts as the home’s lungs bringing fresh air into the house, while recovering some of the energy in the stale air before its removed from the house 

Construction Methods

  • rigid foam2×6 framing of the walls to allow for two extra inches of insulation (57% more), compared to traditional 2×4 construction
  • One inch rigid foam insulation used continuously on the exterior (instead of plywood) provides additional insulation and air sealing (see image at right)
  • Borate only treated blown in cellulose insulation in wall cavities, mainly used for health reasons, but also because cellulose is a great insulator and made from recycled paper. We used Green Fiber insulation made in Norfolk, NE
  • Energy efficient windows by Gerkin made in Sioux City, NE
  • Some Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood during construction, bonus from Millard Lumber – thanks!
  • Caulking the top and the sill plate before insulation to seal air gaps
  • Capillary breaks under and around foundation (plastic under the basement floor and waterproofing spray between the foundation walls and footings) minimizes the water that can enter the basement through the concrete
  • Passive radon mitigation system that allows radon under the home to exit through closed pipe that goes out the roof
  • Rough in for future solar, hopefully installed before the tax credit expirescarpet tile

Lighting, Interior Finish, and Other Sustainable Choices

  • LED lighting, we found screw in bulbs in traditional fixtures were the most economical, especially when bulbs were purchased in Council Bluffs.
  • A detached garage (attached garages often bring unhealthy air into the home)
  • East and south windows to warm the house in the winter, and larger eaves to keep the sun out in the summer
  • Energy Star appliances
  • No and low VOC paints/stains
  • Low flow water faucets, toilets and showers
  • Recycled carpet tile samples in our office / guest room (see image at right)
  • Products made close to home to minimize transportation emissions. For example, pre-finished wood floors are often finished in Asia with significant emissions from that transport; ours is wood floor from the United States and manufactured in the United States.

Implementation Evaluationsblow door smallestestest

  • Blower door tests evaluated air sealing. We did this before paint, trim and floors were installed, to see if the house was sealed well at a point – it was!
  • Personal inspection of the items that were different from what our builder usually used, like the blown in cellulose insulation

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So with all of these great energy saving strategies – What can I tell YOU about saving energy at your home?

  1. If you have incandescent lights in your home, go to Home Depot in Council Bluffs ledsTODAY and buy LED light bulbs to replace all the lights in your home. REPLACE them TONIGHT.

If you have a large home, this could add up to a couple hundred dollars investment, but the investment will pay for itself in electricity savings over the course of a year or less if you are replacing incandescent bulbs. The payback if you are replacing compact florescent lights (curly cue ones) is not as good. This Home Depot has the best prices I’ve seen for LEDs; a 60w-equivalent bulb is usually $5-7 each. On sale for $3 a week or two ago… After the first year, you’re saving lots of money in electricity each year! Here is a handy calculator to see this savings.

  1. If you are building or want to do a more significant project in your home, air sealing and insulation are the most cost effective ways to save energy. I would suggest getting your home’s HERS rating calculated. Then I would talk to the rater that does this calculation to see what you could do to improve your specific home in a cost effective way. I used American Energy Advisors (AEA) here in Omaha for this, and was very happy with the work they did for us and the advice they provided throughout the building process.
  1. If you are installing new insulation, take the day off and oversee the installers. The installers my builder used had never installed blown in dry cellulose and were given insulationno instruction on how to do so. When the ‘finished’ insulation was reviewed by the manufacturer representative to ensure it met manufacturer specifications (at my special request), it was short about 25% of the needed material. I’ve heard of other installers in town just skipping entire wall cavities. My advice here is to get lots of references before you choose a company, spend 20 minutes learning what you need to on the internet about how things should be installed, and then be there while the job is happening to actively review the installer’s work.

At the end of the building process, when AEA brought their infrared gun to check wall temperatures on a very cold December day, I was happy with the temperatures on the walls at this point. We’ll see a few years down the road, whether the insulation settles or not, a check we can do with an infrared gun that reads wall temperatures.

  1. If you want to build a green home, make sure you find a builder in the area with some experience with this, and just as importantly, a builder that is interested and willing to learn. Based on my research and conversations with others in the green community, there doesn’t seem to be a go-to green builder in Omaha.

We asked Landmark Performance Homes to build for us, and the owner Steve Faller was great throughout the entire project. Whenever we had a green practice in mind that Landmark had never done before, we talked through it. Steve gave us his insight based upon years of building experience and together we chose the best path forward. This was critical to keep our costs under control and to ensure that best practices in green building were incorporated whenever possible. I found Building Science and Green Building Advisor to be the most helpful websites when sorting out detailed questions on what to do.

  1. If you are buying a new home, check out the HERS scores before you buy. Here is the Residential Energy Services Network’s (RESNET) database of all HERS scores. Also, keep an eye out in realtor descriptions for HERS scores; local builders are working to get HERS scores included as part of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) system where all realtors share listing information. If you are buying a home with a lower HERS score, this will save you money every month and should tip the scales when selecting between homes.

 

In the end, we love our dream home, and we are proud to have built a home that will stand for hundreds of years, making a small ongoing impact on our environment.

And if you wake up to this view everyday, how can you not want to protect our environment.

sunrise 11 inch

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Over 1,700 sustainability coordinators, faculty, students, and staff descended into Nashville, TN this week for Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) 8th Annual Conference & Expo. This year the theme was Resiliency and Adaptation, taking a hard look at how we can be resilient in the face of climate change and how we can adapt to the changes that are already being observed across the country, from increased numbers of severe weather events to animals moving their habitats north. There are even impacts that include where I live in the Midwest.

If attendance is an indicator of the importance of a topic, then behavior change is definitely one of the more important conversations that happened this week as adaptation and resiliency were discussed in depth. The sessions where employee and student engagement were connected with behavior change were overflowing with attendees. In the past there has been a big emphasis on technological and an organization’s structural solutions, but now more than ever the sustainability profession is talking about the importance of each individual’s choices – that is, their behavior. There are currently gaps in the industry around how to effectively create a culture of sustainability among an organization’s faculty, students, and staff. People are hungry for this information.

There are many questions, studies, and pilots of new products and programs. By trying new programs with proper monitoring and evaluation, people are beginning to get a better understanding of how best to engage in the creation of sustainable culture. Colleges across the country such as the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Minnesota, and American University in D.C. are engaging students in a variety of ways.

One great example of innovation occurring in creating a culture of sustainability comes from the University of Minnesota. They developed five key green measures that help organizations inventory existing sustainability behaviors and identify motivations and barriers to sustainable behaviors. After an initial assessment, the GreenFive are used to help identify the best combination of programs and outreach that will help foster a culture of sustainability.

One of the questions I asked over and over of the speakers and product developers was “How long is this behavior sustained after the program is over, or after participants sign on once to create an account?” At this time, no one could say for certain. However, in programs that ask participants to track individual behaviors such as recycling a can or making a trip by bike instead of car, speakers were sharing that it is relatively easy to get people to sign up initially, but to get them to sign back on more than once to continue to track behaviors was a challenge.

Since we work with organizations specifically on behavior change, we were honored to have been selected to co-present with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) on their very successful Live Green Pledge program. The room was packed with 75 attendees eager to hear how the UNMC pledge program was helping people “Make it Stick”–to actually change their habits for the long term. The way this pledge program is structured is not just as a tool that gets people to change one behavior once, but as a tool that helps foster long-term sustained positive behavior change.

Over 1,700 total students, faculty and staff have participated in UNMC’s Live Green Pledge. This is a simple to deploy, yet sophisticatedly designed tool using the best environmental behavior-change psychology to help increase the success rate of participants. Our research has shown that between 70%-85% of pledge participants are still engaging in the positive behavior one full year after they took the pledge. No one else at the conference had evidence of sustained behavior change a year after participating in a green competition or other pledge program.

Fortunately so many bright people from across the country are working to find the best ways to foster sustainable and thriving organizations through culture and behavior programs. As Verdis continues to use our pledge, we will continuously improve it as new research comes out about behavior change programs

The AASHE Conference and Expo provides a great forum every year to advance best practices, research, and ideas that are helping create a brighter future for everyone.

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Last August I noticed that Metro Transit was on pace to reach several milestones in 2012, and I wrote about it on this blog. One of those milestones was providing more than 4 million passenger trips in 2012. With 2012 now behind us, I am excited to share that Metro Transit provided 4,225,612 rides in 2012. This is a significant achievement for several reasons:

  • It is the first year Metro has provided more than 4 million rides since 1991 (4,098,497 rides). At that time, gasoline hovered near $1.00 per gallon, automakers were ushering in the era of the SUV, suburban expansion continued to be the dominant paradigm, and Metro ridership was on the decline. Now, gasoline prices are relatively high, automakers are focusing on fuel efficiency, suburban development is giving way to urban redevelopment, and Metro ridership is on the rise. Check out the trend in the graph:
(Download the graph as a .pdf: Metro Transit Ridership by Year 1973–2012)
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  • Metro ridership in 2012 matches (exceeds?) the number of passengers through Eppley Airfield in 2011: 4.2 million.
  • The previous one-month record ridership in at least the past decade was in October 2008 (381,678 rides) after the economy crashed. The current peak is now October 2012 (406,566 rides) with August 2012 (377,731 rides) a close third.
  • Seven of the ten months with the highest ridership in the last decade occurred between June 2011 and October 2012. Eight months in 2012 rank in the top twenty for ridership.

The ridership data paints a picture that is consistent with external indicators: gasoline prices; lifestyle preferences of Generations X, Y, and baby boomers; growing awareness of the environmental and health consequences of driving; and economic pressures making it more difficult to own and operate a private vehicle. In addition, Metro has rebranded itself and continues to make improvements to its services (e.g., bike racks), facilities (e.g., the North Omaha Transit Center renovations), and programs (e.g., Metro Partners) while it awaits the results of the Central Omaha Transit Alternatives Analysis, the Regional Transit Vision Study, and the implementation of the Omaha Transportation Master Plan. The external factors, the continuous improvement, and the ridership numbers clearly show that Metro Transit is becoming an increasingly important transportation option in the Omaha area.

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Just before all the snow melted in the middle of January, I walked to pick up my daughter from her first day back at school after the holiday break. The first thing she did when we started to walk off the school property was ask if she could put on her boots because there was a pile of snow taller than her which she wanted to climb.

You see, many days we pick her up in our car because our days are so full and fast. Right now, however, I’m on paternity leave for the birth of Aderyn’s baby brother Rohan so I’m helping out with everything around the house, including getting Aderyn to and from school. One of the reasons we chose to live where we do is precisely because it is a “very walkable” neighborhood with a walkscore of 71. Add to this all the recent attention to how sitting is killing us and I thought it would be a good practice for me to walk to pick up my daughter, and of course, there are the environmental benefits and cost savings of not driving.

Aderyn didn’t really expect to walk home; she merely had her shoes on and wasn’t prepared for an adventure going home. As soon as her boots were on, her feet were climbing up the snow pile, and after only a few minutes of conquering it, she wanted to slide down on her bottom to get back on the ground. Sadly for her, school clothes aren’t conducive to sliding down snow piles.

As quickly as the pile invited her to climb it, a large empty lot full of melting snow invited her to run through it, picking up snow on the way, which ended up as broken snowballs on and in my coat.

snowy walks = an adventure waiting to happen

Really, who would have imagined walking home would lead to so many adventures? Trekking through the vacant lot allowed us to pass through a friendly neighbor’s yard as a shortcut where Aderyn picked up a two-inch piece of ice the size of a cookie sheet! No surprise it didn’t last long before she smashed it on the sidewalk to see all the pieces it broke into.

Back on the sidewalk the name of the game was “throw snowballs at daddy” again, which was really quite fun as I dodged, ducked, and got hit with snowballs. The game was only interrupted long enough to splash in puddles along the way.

Next, we made our mark in the snow on top of a short retaining wall where we guided our gloved hands through the snow, knocking plenty off in the process. We soon turned down the big hill by our house where Aderyn’s imagination ran as fast as someone sledding down the hill. In fact, she began to imagine how fun it would be to sled down the 2 1/2-block hill on the snow-packed sidewalk, of course only to magically stop before crossing into the street. When I pointed out how hard it would be to stop a sled moving at that speed, she thought a hill as high as the trees might do the trick to slow us down. And once we would be stopped at the top of this hill-as-high-as-the-trees, we could start over by sledding down the backside of the giant snow hill.

By the time we figured all this out we were feeling even more adventurous so we cut through an old abandoned alley to get to our house from the backyard. All of this made me feel like our journey home from school was just like the kids’ dashed trail in Family Circus comics.

The point is, none of this would have happened had we driven home. Not to mention it was the slow pace that created enough space in my mind to be so present to Aderyn, especially when she asked if we could go sledding. Luckily for me, I had the presence enough to say yes. However, the sledding, getting “air-time”, and pulling daddy down the hill stories will have to wait for another time.

Needless to say whenever I walk up to get her after school her first question is now, “Did you walk?” quickly followed by, “Let’s have an adventure!”

Where did you walk today?

What adventures do you make time for in your day?

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It’s time for us to stop dancing around the issue of whether or not humans are causing climate change. The overwhelming evidence unequivocally shows that climate change is real and is primarily human-caused. This is no longer up for debate. It’s time to move on to solutions and, dare I say, adaptation.

Internally we’ve been talking about when and how we discuss climate change with our clients, partners and collaborators. We have always been very careful when bringing it up because we fear doing so will immediately alienate the “disbelievers.” I think it’s time we start talking about it. First, a little background on why I’m a little fired up about it. Over the weekend I watched a film and read several articles that put me in a bit of a tizzy.

Chasing Ice
First, on Friday night a few Verdisians and I took in the film Chasing Ice. It’s a documentary following photographer James Balog’s quest to document the rapid decline in glacial ice. As he put it in the film, glacial retreat is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. The film did a wonderful job of showing the eye-opening loss of glacial ice while being absolutely beautiful thanks to Balog’s stunning photography.

Chasing Ice really reached a crescendo for me when a few of Balog’s colleagues witnessed the largest calving event ever recorded on tape. Glacial ice roughly the size of Manhattan broke away from the main Ilulissat Glacier for 75 minutes, a portion of which was shown in the film and can be viewed in the clip above. It was absolutely jaw-dropping to see. If you haven’t seen the film yet, it’s worth seeing in the theatre (now playing at Film Streams!).

National Climate Assessment & More
When I awoke Saturday morning, there were three articles on the back page of the Omaha World Herald all covering climate change; two of which summarized findings from the National Climate Assessment (NCA) draft report. The first article focused on what’s been happening in the Great Plains and highlighted the crazy weather we experienced in 2011 as a perfect case-in-point for what we should expect going forward (of particular note: $12 billion in damages due to the extreme weather).

The second article summarized national trends and specifically mentioned the NCA’s finding that “warming of the planet is changing daily American life“. The report, which is a mere 1,100+ pages, cuts right to the chase and identifies the kinds of changes we should expect, region-by-region, and warns of the disruptions our society will likely experience as temperatures rise. While it’s not as epic as Waterworld predicts, the prognostications are a little scary.

The third article donning the back page of my Herald originally ran in the New York Times on January 10. Its focus was 2012’s worldwide weather and it noted that extreme weather is now the norm. Several extreme and highly abnormal weather events from all over the globe were cited. As was illuminated in the Times article, extreme weather is not uncommon, but the sheer number of extreme events that occurred in 2012 is what’s abnormal.

Where Do We Go From Here
Fortunately, many businesses are responding, which is becoming clearer every time a major consulting firm produces a sustainability-focused report. One indicator: more than 80% of the Global 500 responded to the Climate Disclosure Project’s 2011 request for carbon disclosure (PwC: Do Investors care about sustainability?). Additional good news is that those companies that are actually taking meaningful steps are often out-performing their competitors (MIT Sloan Management Review: Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage). 

Despite the clear evidence that 1) we are facing widespread institutional risk to all of our known systems due to climate change, and 2) implementing meaningful sustainable change is good for the bottom line, we still find that adoption of sustainable principles can still be a tough sell. Why? IBM’s recent report suggests that executive involvement and support is critical to success. We couldn’t agree more. Without the leader on board, it’s not worth doing, which is sad but true. Leaderless sustainability initiatives often struggle and face insurmountable challenges when attempting to make progress.

I think there’s more at play, though. The term climate change has become so politically polarized that some leaders will stop listening if it’s even mentioned, which means that when it comes time for them to understand the risks they face and the benefits they’re missing, they’ve already tuned out. It’s for this reason that we rarely talked about climate change in the past, choosing instead to focus on the more tangible benefits of sustainability initiatives: saving money, happier employees, healthier work environments, and more loyal customers.

It’s no longer enough. It’s time for us to start talking about the risks that organizations face as well. It’s not going to be easy, but if we’re going to do our job and do it well, they must be knowledgeable of and prepared to respond to the challenges that climate change is going to bring. These aren’t scare tactics; it’s reality. And if we aren’t prepared and helping our clients prepare, we aren’t doing our job.

Onward and upward.

 

 

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As an advocate for increasing the use of renewable energy as one action to slow climate change, I am disappointed by the news that the South Shore Heights Homeowners Association has forced one of the neighborhood residents to remove solar panels from the roof of his house.

Over the weekend the Omaha World Herald published a story summarizing the struggle and conclusion of one South Shore Heights (SSH) resident’s attempt to have solar panels on his home. Resident Tim Adams installed the panels on his roof in 2010 and has been battling the SSH Homeowners Association (HOA) ever since. The two sides recently settled a lawsuit (prompting the OWH story) and Adams agreed to remove the panels by July 1. I want to summarize the arguments on both sides and then add my own two cents.

Tim Adams’ Argument

Mr. Adams created a website to tell his side of the story and to “educate Omaha homeowners about solar power and the lawsuit” with SSH. His primary argument is that solar panels are not prohibited by any language in the SSH covenants. Moreover, Mr. Adams argues the HOA board has for years failed to follow protocols in the covenants for approval of external improvements and has been inconsistent in approving certain improvements.

A view of the rear of Mr. Adams house in South Shore Heights.

The HOA’s Argument

In challenging Mr. Adams’ solar panels, the HOA board relied upon covenant language requiring external improvements to conform to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood. The board argued that allowing solar panels on Mr. Adams’ house would reduce property values and make it more difficult to sell the home, in addition to being ugly.

My Perspective

Even though the HOA was on the winning side, I think the HOA was on the wrong side.  The evidence that global warming is already happening is growing, and even though Nebraska won’t disappear due to sea level rise—unlike many island nations—Nebraskans should start preparing for more frequent and severe drought, more wildfires, and changes to wildlife and insect inhabitants as climate change impacts the midwest. (What do you think these impacts will do to our agricultural economy?) Our past burning of fossil fuels and the associated emissions are starting to catch up with us. The future costs of the impact of climate change are going to make the supposed aesthetic concerns of the SSH HOA insignificant. The SSH HOA seems out of touch with the causes and effects of climate change.*

Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of drought in the midwest, meaning that reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky near South Shore Heights, will eventually disappear as water supplies decrease.

Although I do not know if the SSH HOA has challenged other exterior improvements in the neighborhood, other HOAs around the country have fought with homeowners over such frivolous items as holiday decorations, yard signs, types of pets, use of clotheslines for drying clothes, and allowable flora and fauna. There have also been other HOA challenges related to more significant items like the on-site use of renewable energy for a home. As a society we need to get past the point where aesthetics and short-term economic concerns prevent one individual from making a decision to reduce his family’s contribution to climate change by investing in solar energy.

I suspect that Mr. Adams thoroughly educated his neighbors on the financial case for on-site renewable energy and the environmental benefits of preventing climate change. However, I wonder if he mentioned the more immediate impacts of pollution from OPPD’s coal- and natural gas-based electricity generation, and the immediate health benefits to everyone in the Omaha region from reducing the emissions from nearby power plants. These emissions are directly tied to respiratory irritation across the population but especially in the very young and very old, linked to asthma and bronchitis, send mercury into the atmosphere and environment, and emit gases that lead to acid rain.

Selection Bias In Action

Regardless of the SSH HOA’s right to exercise its authority pertaining to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood, I think that Mr. Adams was right not to back down right away. The HOA may not have fully considered the practical value—as opposed to any aesthetic value—of the panels, because it appears the board members were likely making decisions using selective bias. Selective bias is a human tendency to perceive information that reinforces preexisting beliefs while ignoring information that challenges existing beliefs. In such cases, convincing others to act on information alone is quite difficult. Instead, those individuals need to come to the conclusion on their own either through their own experience or over time. It seems the SSH HOA already has a bias against renewable energy regardless of its practical value, and did not truly consider or weigh that value against any preexisting biases.

The settlement between the parties reinforces the apparent presence of selective bias. In addition to restricting Mr. Adams from taking future legal action or filing complaints against the HOA, the settlement does not allow him to make any future public comments about the case or the HOA and its members, whether on Facebook, his website, or other media. Although I don’t agree, I can understand the settlement requiring removal of the panels and preventing future legal action, but the restraint on Mr. Adams’ speech seems only to underscore the HOA’s bias in this situation. The HOA was able to block Mr. Adams from using renewable energy on his home, but why should he also be restricted from making future comments about the case? The answer is that it reinforces the HOA’s apparent bias against on-site renewables: The HOA had an opportunity to remove a voice from the table that it didn’t agree with by imposing this bias on Mr. Adams’ would-be audience. In other words, the HOA appears to have shifted from the internal bias of “I don’t care what you have to say and I’m not listening,” to the external “Because I don’t want to hear what you have to say, I won’t allow you to say it to anyone else either.”

Conclusion

By filing for a court injunction to force Mr. Adams to remove his panels, the SSH HOA could have set a very damaging precedent to the future use of private renewable energy generation in the Omaha area. Even though it is disappointing that the HOA ultimately achieved its objective to remove the panels, it is better that it occurred through a private settlement rather than a court decision. The next time an HOA threatens renewable energy on a private home in Omaha, I hope Omaha residents can galvanize support for city-wide changes that ensure any homeowner can take action to his or her carbon footprint by investing in private, on-site renewable energy generation. Nebraska’s net metering statutes presumes that residents have the ability take such action, and allowing distributed generation increases the security and reliability of our electricity grid by spreading out the generation and reducing the need for transmission, in addition to mitigating climate change.

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*The South Shore Heights website “about” page states that SSH is “situated within a quarter mile” of Lake Zorinsky, and features a panoramic image of the lake. The implication is that the neighborhood derives value from its proximity to a natural place, and I am sure that is true. However, there is a disconnect because Mr. Adams solar panels would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is an action that mitigates climate change, and thereby helps preserve natural places as we now know them. Without greater action to mitigate climate change, scientists predict more frequent and severe drought in the midwest, which has the potential to perpetually dry up reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky as water resources become more scarce.

 

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