The Bright Green Future

 

Despite national economic challenges, green industries are expanding and customers are committed…

 Green Light Bulb copy

by Brita Belli

Going green is not just a trend—it’s a full-scale shift that’s taken place across the consumer landscape in every market. In one recent study, the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies found that half of the survey respondents would “definitely” or “probably” pay more for eco-friendly laundry detergent or an automobile. Even those who described their financial situation as “fair” or “poor” expressed their willingness to spend 15 percent more on environmentally friendly detergent and wood furniture.

As the market continuously shifts toward healthier options—both for people and the planet—companies that produce everything from cars to cosmetics to clean energy systems are responding with greater options and lower prices.

Organic and Local Food

Research by Packaged Facts reports that organic food sales have continued to grow over the past year, albeit at an annual rate closer to 6 percent, compared to the 20 percent of better years. The researchers found that “premium customers,” those earning $75,000 per year or more, increased their organic purchases in the past year. Also, some 33 percent of those earning much less still seek out organic labels at the grocery store.

Organic foodies are committed to the healthfulness promised by fruits, veggies, juices, cereals, meats and other food staples that aren’t produced or raised with harmful additives or toxic pesticides. From Stop & Shop’s Nature’s Promise to Whole Foods’ 365 Organic Everyday Value and Wegmans’ Food You Feel Good About, supermarket brands now offer organic items ranging from crackers to butter and chicken at prices comparable to non-organic versions.

This emerging shift means we have a chance at making progress in restoring our land and water and better safeguarding life from the hazards of industrial agriculture, in which pesticides and herbicides and in the case of meat, antibiotics and hormones, harm soil quality and contaminate our water supplies. Demand for local foods from farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs has seen an upswing, too. More buyers are expressing concern with “food miles”—how far food travels from farm to plate—resulting in needless carbon doxide emissions during transport and reduced taste. Says vegetarian cookbook author Deborah Madison, “I like everything about a farmers’ market. It’s vital, it’s alive, it’s the best-tasting food.”

Contact: Organic Consumers Association

Green Building

Buildings in the United States account for 38 percent of primary energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, making them a top contributor to global warming, according to the Environmental Information Administration. The green building movement now encompasses improved insulation and heating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; energy-efficient windows and appliances; low-flow commodes and showers; use of recycled and more durable materials for roofs, decks and countertops; and paints free of volatile organic compounds. According to McGraw-Hill Construction’s Green Outlook 2009, the overall green building market is likely to more than double from today’s $46 billion to $49 billion to $96 billion to $140 billion by 2013.

Increasing awareness of the benefits of green building, combined with a national push for healthier homes and green jobs, has led to opportunities for homeowners. Federal tax credits are available for up to 30 percent of the cost for various metal and asphalt roofs, biomass stoves (used for heat or water heating), increased insulation and more energy-efficient windows, doors, air conditioners and water heaters. Details are available at the government’s Energy Star website.

More, the the Federal Housing Administration is offering Energy Efficient Mortgages to new homebuyers who commit to significant energy-saving improvements or who purchase an Energy Star-rated home.

Contact: Energy Star green building tax credit information, search “tax credits”; U.S. Green Building Council

Renewable Energies

Despite the poor economy, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reported that 2008 was one of solar energy’s best years: Here at home, solar power connected to the electric grid was up 58 percent, and solar water heating capacity grew 40 percent. The research firm Clean Edge reports that, worldwide, solar is expected to grow from a $29.6 billion industry in 2008 to $80.6 billion by 2018. In 2008, the United States surpassed Germany to become the world leader in wind energy; that industry is projected to expand from $51.4 billion in 2009 to $139.1 billion in 2018. A host of other renewable energies promise bright futures, too, including geothermal, hydropower and biofuels.

For those who want to convert their house to renewable energies, cost is a factor. Solar panels generally cost between $35,000 to $72,000 before rebates and tax incentives. Solar water heaters are a universally cost-effective way to go; at $2,000 to $4,000 for 80-100 gallons, they can provide more than half a home’s hot water needs. Wrapping a water heater in a space-age insulation blanket and hooking it up to its own timer, at about $200, installed, is another way to cut energy usage and utility bills.

Residential wind turbines—as tall as 80 feet or more—depend on a host of factors to make them feasible, including unobstructed land, building codes and cost considerations. A 10-kW system will cost about $40,000.

For anyone building a new home, a geothermal heat pump is one of the best long-term energy investments. Pipes are buried in the ground outside the home, where the temperature remains stable; these move heat from the ground via encased fluid to the home’s ductwork during cold months and reverse the process in hot months. The overall system costs about $7,500, more than a $4,000 furnace and central air system, but it requires little maintenance. Payback can come in as little as two years.

Many incentives help. A 30 percent tax credit is available through 2016 for home renewable energy systems (search the Energy Star website). Local utilities often offer further rebates and incentives (search Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency). For solar panels, tap into a Residential Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), where a customer pays a small upfront cost to a company such as SunRun to guarantee a set electricity rate for the next 18 years.

Contact: American Wind Energy Association; Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency; Energy Star tax information, search “tax credits”; Solarbuzz; SunRun

Organic Clothing and Linens

While major brands like Levi, Gap and American Apparel have introduced organic clothing lines in the last few years, organic and natural fiber fabrics, including sustainable bamboo and hemp, is still a niche market. While people now better understand the health benefits of organic foods, “Most consumers don’t understand organic… when it comes to clothing,” says Mark Messura, executive vice president of Cotton Incorporated.

Patagonia makes all of its sportswear from 100 percent organic cotton, a practice it began in 1996. Recently, a more widespread advance in green standards for all consumer products has emerged from an unlikely source: Walmart. In July 2009, the retail giant announced that it is developing a universal rating system and “eco label” that lets shoppers know the environmental impacts of the products they are buying, from energy consumption to water use.

For cotton clothing and bedding, pesticide and water use are major concerns. Petra Kjell, of the Environmental Justice Foundation reports, for example, that it requires 500 gallons of water to produce one conventional cotton T-shirt. Traditional cotton production continues to be tied to dangerous levels of toxic pesticides and insecticides.

Eco fashion offers an eclectic mix from emerging designers. They may use surplus designer fabric, T-shirts made from bamboo, or fleece made from recycled soda bottles. Vintage and consignment clothes work well, while “refashion”—like dresses made from T-shirts—are widely available on sites like Etsy.com.

Sheets, pillows and mattresses all come in organic varieties, too. More, they are often superior in quality and durability to their cheaper conventional counterparts.

Contact: Environmental Justice Foundation; Etsy; Patagonia

Cleaner Lawns and Gardens

According to a fact sheet from the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, sales of organic lawn and garden products increased by 64 percent between 2002 and 2006 and continue to grow. It’s no secret that Americans are enthusiastic about their perfectly manicured, green lawns, but they’re also increasingly aware of the environmental impacts. Some are rethinking lawns altogether, switching to native ground cover and other plants as an alternative.

Lawn maintenance equipment is a major environmental problem with grass. A traditional gas-powered mower, notes the Environmental Protection Agency, produces as much air pollution as 43 new cars, each driven 12,000 miles; 54 million Americans mow their lawns each weekend. One alternative is the electric mower, which produces no exhaust, requires little maintenance and is much quieter and lighter than its gas-guzzling cousin. Models from Black & Decker, Neuton, Sunlawn and other companies come in corded and cordless varieties, with charges that can last up to an hour.

Even more problematic, a study by Purdue University confirms that 30 to 60 percent of all urban freshwater is used for watering lawns, which also entails 67 million pounds of pesticides that end up contaminating water systems as runoff. Native plants, on the other hand, require nothing but rainfall to thrive.

Also, more people are turning to rain barrels. Placed under a home’s downspout, these can hold up to 100 gallons and have a spigot for attaching a hose. An added benefit of using rainwater is that plants prefer it.

Contact: Clean Air Gardening

Natural Products

The market research firm Packaged Facts reported in July 2009 that the natural health and beauty care market, which grew 8 percent in 2008 and is approaching $7 billion, is likely to reach sales of $12 billion by 2014. “Many Americans fear the health consequences of using chemical-laden deodorant, shampoo, foundation and other personal care products,” says Tatjana Meerman, the research publisher.

It’s easy to search for the content—and safety—of preferred brand-name products at the Skin Deep online database, maintained by the Environmental Working Group. All of this is good news for the environment, because the chemicals in personal care products find their way through bathing and disposal into the soil and water supplies, where they can negatively impact aquatic life and potentially, human health.

The same holds true for common household cleaners and chemical air fresheners, which contribute to indoor air pollution and can aggravate respiratory illnesses like asthma. One 2008 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that households that regularly used cleaning sprays had a 30 to 50 percent increased risk of experiencing asthma.

People are demanding healthier alternatives and the market is responding. While neither beauty products nor cleaners generally disclose their harmful ingredients, natural and organic alternatives from companies like Seventh Generation offer detailed labels. Conscious shoppers are reading them as they look for plant-based ingredients and essential oils, instead of chemicals.

People can even make their own household cleaners, such as distilled white vinegar and water to clean windows, or baking soda, lemon juice and salt to scrub grout. These are safe for even the most sensitive family members.

Contact: Natural Products Association, NaturalProductsAssoc.org; Skin Deep, CosmeticsDatabase.com.

Efficient Autos and Going Car-Free

The car market has taken a serious hit from the economy, hybrids included. But while even the popular Toyota Prius saw sales drop 44 percent between December 2007 and December 2008, environmentally friendly vehicles are the declared future of the auto industry.
This year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit was all about electric models, from the Cadillac Converj, a more luxurious version of the Chevy Volt, to the Toyota FT-EV city car, expected in showrooms in 2012. Hybrid cars combine the gas engine with an electric motor and utilize a car’s braking energy, making them both more fuel efficient and less polluting. In the government’s 2009 Fuel Economy Guide, the Honda’s Civic Hybrid was cited as a leader among compact cars, delivering 40 miles per gallon in the city/45 mpg on the highway. Among midsized cars, the Prius tops the list with 48/45 mpg; in the SUV class, Ford’s Escape Hybrid gets a solid 34/31 mpg.
Because they can cost $2,000-plus more than gas-powered cars, hybrids are a tough sell at the moment. Several federal tax credits designed to ease the transition to hybrid, electric and other fuel-efficient vehicles, like diesels, have come and gone, the latest called Cash for Clunkers—a federal stimulus program that offered up to $4,500 to anyone who traded an old gas-guzzler for a new, more fuel-efficient car. The discussion has many people seriously rethinking their transportation options.

At the same time, the American Public Transportation Association reported a 4 percent increase in public transportation ridership last year—bringing it to its highest level in 52 years. Bicycle sales are picking up, too. In the first quarter of 2009, U.S. bicycle sales surpassed car sales.

Rising interest in bicycle riding has led many cities to open bike lanes. National efforts to create safe paths for bike riders include the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile traffic-free trail system between Canada and Florida that’s 21 percent complete. The San Francisco Bay Trail has developed 300 miles of shoreline trails for bikers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts over the past 20 years, with an eventual goal of 500 miles. Today’s evolving bicycle designs include folding models for commuters and a range of trailers, carriers and attachments for those who want to start shopping by bike and bring the kids.

Contact: U.S. Department of Energy; East Coast Greenway; The San Francisco Bay Trail Project

Green Investing

Jack Uldrich, the author of Green Investing: A Guide to Making Money through Environment-Friendly Stocks, says that, despite the recession, “I still think cleantech is an outstanding long-term investment trend.” Still, he cautions that green stocks should only comprise 5 percent to 10 percent of an investor’s portfolio. Why? He notes that renewable energy investments are particularly subject to outside forces, such as government investment, the availability of strong credit available to fund solar panels and other energy systems, and the rise and fall of gasoline prices.

But venture capitalists are still flocking to clean technology ventures such as eSolar Inc., the nation’s first solar tower energy facility, in Pasadena, California, backed by the investment firm Idealab. Ernst & Young reported that investments in cleantech startups jumped 73 percent in the second quarter last year. Paul Deninger, vice president of the investment bank Jefferies & Company, notes that the most exciting opportunities may actually occur in the process of managing current energy use “by happenstance, being green, rather than [in] managing the carbon footprint directly.”

Matthew Patsky, a partner of the green fund group Winslow Management, observes that in the future, fossil fuel supplies will inevitably be supplanted by clean energy like solar, wind and geothermal. “Renewable energy, green building, mass transit, improving efficiency…” Patsky concludes, “It’s got to win.”

Contact: Green Century Capital Management, Inc; Pax World Funds; Winslow Management Company

Natural Awakenings readers across the country are among those already investing in a greener future—whether switching to organic snacks and energy-efficient light bulbs, supporting local green businesses or bicycling to work. Collectively, these incremental changes are beginning to add up and the markets are responding.

Brita Belli is the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Renewable Energy for Your Home. Connect at Brita@emagazine.com.

Latest U.S. Energy Innovations

Atomic Solar Cells: The latest innovation in solar technology has taken photovoltaic cells to the atomic level. A California company called Innovalight has invented nano silicon powder that can be added to ink and printed onto various surfaces, turning a whole range of materials into solar power generators for a fraction of the cost of traditional panels.

Portable Fuel Cells: Portable fuel cells, which use a process by which methanol reacts with oxygen to create energy, have already found application in the U.S. military. They are more lightweight than the battery packs soldiers typically carry to power their field equipment. The next frontier is consumer electronic devices. MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. unveiled the Mobion charger last year, a power pack prototype that can deliver 25 hours of power per cartridge for cell phones, computers, digital cameras and handheld devices, without the need to rely on batteries.

Geothermal: A July 2009 study from New York University’s Stern School of Business found that geothermal energy—power plants pumping super-hot (above 300 degrees Fahrenheit) water to the surface to be captured as steam—is the most efficient form of renewable energy. The future lies in Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), which involves drilling even deeper, fracturing rocks that lie kilometers below the surface. To get there, researchers at Stanford University are using nanotechnology that passes nanoparticles into the fractures to determine the feasibility for energy production. For information on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Geothermal Technologies Program, visit eere.energy.gov/geothermal.

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