Dream Green 2
Pat Higby: I think we’re going to see wind turbines across the entire state. The challenge will be: how can we store that for the times the wind is not blowing? And the stored energy park where we’re going to use compressed air, that’s one really good alternative. But I think there are some other alternatives. One of my personal favorites is hydrogen. I’m not sure how we’re going to make it, because we could do it by electrolysis. It’s not really efficient to make it that way, but if you’re throwing away the energy anyway—I mean they’re turning off wind turbines because the power lines can’t support the energy they’re making—why not make it into hydrogen, store it right there at the wind tower and then have a fuel cell to convert it back to electricity? And you’ve already got the lines there! It doesn’t require any new infrastructure if you were to do something like hydrogen stored right there at the wind turbine.
Kevin Nordmeyer: If you’d ask an architect from 1890 or before, you’d say we’re designing sustainability—were using daylight harvesting and rain water harvesting and all these fancy terms we have today—they would just laugh and say, “Well, of course, that’s just what we do because that’s all we have.” We’ve had a couple of generations of architects at least, and Americans, that haven’t experienced anything but air conditioning, haven’t experienced anything but designing buildings with mechanical systems. We have to change those paradigms to say, well, let’s first try to design this building as passively as possible and as lightly as possible, in terms of its ecological footprint. And then apply extremely efficient systems, extremely sophisticated controls if the budget can afford it, to really maximize the efficiency of this building for the times of year that we need mechanical ventilation and the comfort that’s required of modern day Americans.
Voiceover: Welcome to the Dream Green series with co-host Stuart Tanner and James Moore on solar-powered KRUU-FM. Iowans creating a greener tomorrow... today. A journey of discovery across the state featuring innovators, cutting edge projects, and communities leading the way to an energy independent and sustainable future. Visit our website at greeniowa.org.
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Stuart Tanner: Here we are on the road to Cedar Falls. So I had some thoughts from, you know, the meetings we had the other day in Des Moines for our first program. Thoughts about sustainability and bringing about a green revolution, if you like, affecting all areas of our lives—and it does! We’ll be going in a lots of different avenues, and really affects all levels of your life. But one of the things that struck me, talking to Lynnae Hentzen particularly, is the way in which this all ties into the revival of communities and the revival of local economies. Actually, what you’re doing is breaking up very, very big things into smaller things, in a nut shell. If you think about it, you have huge energy companies that are drilling for oil off the coast, or in other countries, or big holes in the ground somewhere, and it all goes into this one vast organization and then it’s distributed. Or you have huge agriculture concerns or other big huge companies. And what you doing very often is reviving smaller packets of that. If you think that you’re creating biomass energy or you’re putting up a wind farm or you’re sourcing food more locally, you’re actually creating smaller enterprises on a more local level. That brings in money locally, for sure. That creates jobs locally, for sure. But actually if you think about the initiatives that COSC and others do, what they have to do is connect up with lots of people. And the more people that get on board and start these smaller scale things, the more you see it’s about a revival of community and community values. And one of things that I’ve taken away from this so far is the way in which green initiatives, green energy, and the green revolution is also about revival of communities.
James Moore: Stuart, why would a community want to pursue self sufficient operations? What would the advantages be?
ST: One of things that I think arises from that is the potential to reduce debt. The idea that by buying local, by creating integrated local businesses and communities, and through that revival, that in a sense, you could offer the prospect of having fewer people carrying larger amounts of debt. If you look at it in terms of energy efficiency and renewables, the longer term objective is that you’re getting more for less. Although it might seem up front that you’re spending more for the same, the longer term objective with that is that you’re spending less and getting more. So that that’s the whole logic of renewable energy, in fact, or energy efficiency. If that’s the case, then for everybody, the more you can reduce debt, the more money has to spend to invest. I think one of the figures that was given to us by Monica Stone was the Iowa spends 6 billion on importing energy. And that actually is the same amount as the state budget. So if you think that you can stop producing that energy locally in channeling those resources locally, you’re actually end up with less money going out of the state and more money for investment in the state.
JM: You mentioned the money and the energy stays inside, closer to the community, to provide its needs. And means that, like the local food approach, you’re not driving food a thousand, fifteen hundred miles, to the market. This idea of becoming more energy efficient, more efficient with use of land, and all these different parameters that we are discussing and exploring on this wonderful journey across the state of Iowa, looking at best practices of different sustainable models used for business, for education, in public and private. Today we have an overcast sky, unlike our trip to Des Moines. Cedar Falls—we’re just going past Iowa City now. We’re looking forward to speaking with Pat Higby in Cedar Falls at UNI, the University of Northern Iowa, getting a perspective on energy as we wind our way through this state.
ST: Yeah, we are winding our way, although none of your roads are particularly windy. If you want windy roads the UK is your place for that, mate, because they’re all based on cart tracks from the Middle Ages that are a great joy for a driver. Whereas here, like now, I can merrily chat to you because we go a constant speed on a straight road and you put it on cruise. And that’s it really. It’s like your lounge is traveling with you on wheels.
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JM: And we’re just passing through Cedar Rapids on our way up to Cedar Falls. And I’m reminded of, wow, the devastating flooding as you look through here and that whole island area. Cedar Rapids’ obviously back up but as we go over the bridge here, you can see how high still the river is. Makes you wonder all that moving down towards Mississippi down there and into Louisiana. Interesting stuff but we are winding our way on this travel across Iowa series which we’re delighted to do to see more and more of the state. We’ll be getting to Cedar Falls soon. Any thoughts Stuart?
ST: Yeah, there is a connection to what we’re doing about the greater risks of flooding that are occurring and climate change. Extreme weather events are one of the predictions of a model of a warming earth, because you’ve got more energy going throughout the earth’s weather systems and you get more extreme events, which obviously it’s pretty topical at the moment with these horrendously feirce tornadoes that are sweeping through south of here and unfortunately causing a lot of loss of life. So it kind of all connects up.
JM: And speaking of connecting up, we’re going to sally forth now on a decidedly overcast day. It is not raining but it looks like it’s threatening to rain at every second and particularly when you have sunglasses on.
ST: But I don’t have me brolly, James.
JM: No brolly? [British slang for umbrella.] Well, you know what, we’re going to have to tough it out with our equipment but we’ll be back in just a moment. We are on the road again. Here we are in the Dream Green series on solar-powered KRUU-FM and you can get it at the website www.greeniowa.org. That simple, greenoiowa.org. We’ll be back.
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JM: And we have just pulled in to Cedar Falls, and momentarily we’ll be arriving at our destination to have an opportunity to speak with Pat Higby. I see some—it’s either a spaceship or a dome—or is that Buckminster Fuller?
ST: They do have a dome at the University. I could see that from the Google maps. Perhaps it’s a geodesic dome.
JM: I do love Buckminster Fuller, who said: Never fight the existing reality. Create a new one and make the old one obsolete.
ST: And that’s exactly the kind of people that we’re talking to, isn’t it? The heirs of Buckminster Fuller, in terms of that very sentiment.
GPS: “Turn right.”
JM: Turn right. University of Northern Iowa. Wow, the buildings are beautiful, great campus.
GPS: “Arriving at destination.”
JM: Right out front, there are some solar panels. That’s a good sign.
ST: The Center for Energy and Environmental Education. There it is, right opposite us.
JM: What a space age, beautiful design. Center for Energy and Environmental Education. Solar panels greeting us right as we come in. This is all good stuff. So we’ll be back in just a moment. Don’t go anywhere, don’t touch that dial–and I don’t mean the sun dial.
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JM: You were saying?
Pat Higby: The north side is what the architect, Kevin Nordmeyer, described as the urban side. It looks a little bit like a warehouse. The back door is the south side and, as you can see, we’ve got brick, we’ve got natural stone and this is just the beautiful side of the C triple E.
JM: I have to say, coming in from the front side with this beautiful design that you have—that we took a picture under, we can show on the website—I thought it was just gorgeous but it does look lush back here and I love our friends, the solar panels.
PH: Those were actually in a closet when I came and I was able to get some funding from the Iowa Energy Center to get those erected there. And what we put them in, it had grass under it, but now we have native prairie under it. So we don’t have to worry anymore about the mower throwing any rocks towards our solar cells and they don’t burn the prairie under my solar cells either, so that’s a good thing.
JM: So, everything’s clean and this is just gorgeous back here. What a wonderful design. I do have to say though, when we came in, Pat, to see the solar panels that greet and also the wind turbine that’s out there, this is feeling good already.
PH: Yeah, those are part of the industrial technology that has been installed. Doctor [Reg] Pecen has managed to put those in.
JM: Well, great. I wonder if you could help us. On the drive up, we were talking about Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls. Stuart was asking, there must have been some Cedar trees around here. What’s the history there?
PH: Well, it’s because of the Cedar River actually. The floods that we had in Cedar Rapids recently, it was kind of interesting, we gave them a couple of, three days, warning on that because our banks were completely full. And then they got another five inches of rain in addition. So the connection there is the Cedar River which I’m sure which probably named for all those cedar trees, yes.
JM: I did notice, coming through Cedar Rapids, things have turned around there but, boy, that was a devastating hit, wasn’t it?
PH: It was terrible. Here in Cedar Falls we were able to release the water on one side of the river, on the north side, and we protected our south side bank. And Cedar Rapids, they tried to channel that river. You can’t control something as big as a river. They were trying to control it and it just got loose on both sides for them. It was just devastating.
JM: And a little more about the building, Pat?
PH: In addition to having the south side be the natural side, we have this fantastic limestone arch that goes right over the top of the sidewalk. Everyone comes through it to get to our front door and that our architect said was like the entry way to campus.
JM: It’s just gorgeous. I love limestone.
PH: The limestone is maquoketa limestone. Our choice was to get local materials so that we had less energy embedded in the transportation of the materials here. We have brick and we also have what I would call cement blocks. The cement blocks have not been painted, they haven’t been treated, and ironically, in designing this new building, the architect was planning for its eventual demolition. So the idea is that these materials do not have to be specially disposed of in a landfill because of toxic paints that are on them. They’re just all natural and so even as he was birthing a new building he was looking towards its eventual reprocessing.
JM: Looking at the whole cycle.
PH: The south facing has the overhang so that we have shade from the summer sun. But they are narrow enough that we allow the winter sun to go in. There is so much daylighting in this building. In fact, for its 10th anniversary—this was built in 1993. It looks modern. I think it will always look modern. But it was built in 1993 and at the time, ten years later—we had a kind of a 10th anniversary presentation by the architect, Kevin Nordmeyer, and also by the energy engineer, that was Tom McDougall from the White Group. It was interesting because Kevin, looking at 10 years later said, “You know, I think I put too many windows in here.” At that time we didn’t really have the feel for how many windows it would take for the daylighting. So actually if Kevin were to redesign this, he indicated he’d actually fewer windows in, and that’s kind of interesting.
JM: We’re looking forward to speaking with him but I bet up there it feels very good to have all those windows.
PH: Oh, it sure it does. I used to have an office in the center of the building. And even though I was in the center with no direct windows outside, I could look out my door and I could look north through the windows on the north side of the building, or I could look through a window on the south and I could look directly outside, south through the window. And I almost never had to turn my office lights on because it was daylit and that’s a room right in the center of the building. It was just amazing.
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JM: And this is James Moore, part of the Dream Green series. We are up in Cedar Falls and we’re at UNI, that’s the University of Northern Iowa. We are at the Center for Energy and Environmental Education visiting with Pat Higby. She is an energy educator here, to put it mildly. She graduated with a degree in physics from UNI. She has expertise in developing and delivering education programs related to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Seems like a pretty a good fit and we’ve been having a great time visiting with her at the center, a beautiful, beautiful facility. She’s also teaching classes here but serves on the board of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association and the Iowa Power Fund—not anymore though?
PH: That’s right I’m an alumni of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association Board and soon to be an alumni of the Iowa Power Fund Board. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all that free time.
JM: [smiling] Yes, I can just imagine, Pat. Just give us a sense of what it has meant being a part of the Iowa Power Fund.
PH: It has been fantastic because I was there from the very start. Some of those first projects that we funded, we’re beginning to see the results of and we’re also starting to see how things are kind of synchronizing and there’s a synergy about things. It’s a really, really good feeling when someone will tell you, “I don’t need the money so much as I need your blessing.” The Iowa Power Fund has gotten a reputation of funding really good projects and so if we can fund even at a small level, other funders see it is a really good reason to support that group as well.
JM: Let’s talk a little bit about, what you’re doing here. The C triple E, as some of us say, a great of focus for a lot of years. This building as you’ve been saying started 1993. Give us a little sense of your role here.
PH: Well, I’ve been an energy educator here for 10 years, Iowa unfortunately, unlike a lot of other states, really didn’t have the infrastructure and funding for a lot of good energy education and so that’s what I’ve been working on really in the last ten years.
JM: We sit here with you in the space where you teach. It’s lively. We have little solar cars in front of us and, Stuart, you wanted to ask something?
ST: I wanted to ask you what you thought were the key energy issues for Iowa.
PH: One of our issues really has to do with the controversy over: is ethanol a good thing or a bad thing? And what we’ve been trying to do is to get past grain, or kernel corn ethanol, and get more toward a cellulosic feed stock for ethanol, biodiesel. Actually, the new fuel is what they’re calling drop-in fuels. There’s an isobutanol technology that’s coming up that we’re pretty sure we can adapt our current ethanol plants and that will really, really help this whole issue tremendously because it’s going to give us a much more energy-rich dense fuel. They’re actually making this out of cellulose so that we’ll be able to, instead of putting corn onto a slope that really probably should not have a row crop, we’ll be able to put that into something like prairie grass and use that as the cellulosic source. So that’s one of the things the Power Fund has been doing, too, is trying to promote that cellulosic aspect of ethanol.
ST: As regards to the current ethanol from corn, is the issue that, looking at all the numbers, all the factors that go into creating it, that you know, there’s a question mark about how really energy efficient or green it is?
PH: Oh, I think you’re maybe working with figures from five years ago because, just as any technology starts out not so good. The internal combustion engine, if you had one of the first ones, you would never have dreamed that it could become as efficient as it did. The ethanol plants are kind of the same way. They started out and they weren’t that great. Over time we’ve been able to really fine tune them and so, yes, they do give out more energy than they put in. That’s kind of a misnomer from previous times.
JM: I’m wondering if you could tell us the difference between corn and cellulose in terms of this approach.
PH: Right. Right now for a lot of people, cellulosic ethanol means being able to use the cob and the stock of the corn. But then we’re still planting row crops on hills. So for me, cellulosic is going to be using more of a grass as a base and they’ve got some indications from Minnesota. There is a gentleman there that did some early research that if your prairie includes a good, wide variety of plants, you’re going to get a lot more tons per acre than you would if you just planted switch grass. Switch grass is fine, it’s a grass, but it’s a monoculture and if you’ll go with a variety of mixes, you’re more likely to get more tons per acre and it’s better for the environment as well. If you’ve ever been on a prairie, you can be there just about any time of the year, you’ll see so many that affects just one prairie plant, you have 20 or 30 others that are going to take over and you’ll still have a crop.
ST: What do you imagine is going to be the future? How is it going to look, do you think, in terms of energy generation?
PH: I think we’re going to see wind turbines across the entire state. Maybe not down in the southeast corner, there’s a little less wind there. But we have really good wind across most of the state. So I think you’re going to see wind there. The challenge will be: how can we store that for the times the wind is not blowing? And the stored energy park where we’re going to use compressed air, that’s one really good alternative. But I think there are some other alternatives. One of my personal favorites is hydrogen. I’m not sure how we’re going to make it, because we could do it by electrolysis. It’s not really efficient to make it that way, but if you’re throwing away the energy anyway–I mean, they’re turning off wind turbines because the power lines can’t support the energy they’re making–why not make it into hydrogen, store it right there at the wind tower and then have a fuel cell to convert it back to electricity? And you’ve already got the lines there! It doesn’t require any new infrastructure if you were to do something like hydrogen stored right there at the wind turbine. I think for transportation, we’ll probably end up going more towards electricity. I’m really, really looking forward to getting myself a fully electric car. I really am.
ST: So what role do you think that fossil fuels might play—let’s say the timeframe’s the next ten years, obviously we’ll still have coal fire stations? Do you see a future where everything is going to convert across to renewables?
PH: This has been a terrible year, weather-wise. We’ve had so many deadly tornadoes. It’s just amazing. One of the books that I require my classes to read is Carbon Diaries: 2015, set in Britain. And they’ve had such a massive storm that they’re going to limit carbon. And it’s the story of this family and how they deal with that. I recommend that as something that you need to read. But until we somehow finally make the link between carbon and the cost of burning carbon, I’m afraid we’re not going to get those coal fired power plants shut down. And I’m also quite concerned about the cracking to get natural gas from the ground, using shell for oil, Canada. What we’re doing to their environment there just so that we can their oil is amazing. We’re going have to have some really courageous politicians in order to get some change there.
JM: What role as an educator, do you feel education plays in driving the process for it as well?
PH: Well, I think you really have to educate the young people. Some of those students that I taught are now tax-paying, electricity-using, automobile-driving citizens. You know, some people say, “Oh, well, we don’t need to worry about the kids because, you know, we need to work with the adults right now.” They don’t realize how quickly those students become adults. Plus, students—children—have a really, really tremendous impact on their families. If you’re a smoker, and you have a child who knows you’re not suppose to be smoking, you can just imagine the impact that they can have on you. “Why are you smoking daddy?” You know? So for me, you get right in there to educating students.
JM: How would you say Iowa’s doing? Are you feeling encouraged from where you’re at, where we are, and where you think we might be able to go?
PH: I think we could go very far. We really could, given the motivation, that we can do this. Unfortunately, a large portion of our population doesn’t really see the problems that we’re having. Whether they’re denying them because of fear, or because of economics, or whatever reason, I find it very amazing that they don’t feel the same sense of necessity, of urgency, that I do in getting off from fossil fuels and unto alternatives..
ST: Do you think one of the reasons for that is the green side of the equation of energy efficiency and renewables? For a lot of people that’s seen as being very much liberal, very much on the left, even sort of socialist in its leanings, in America. That’s how it can be perceived and it may seem interventionist, so it’s kind of all on that side of the political spectrum in terms of the way it’s seen.
PH: I agree. There’s a politics of green that you could point to there. But on the conservative side when you look at the impact of flooding and of the fires in Texas, of the tornadoes we’ve had, pretty soon I think that they’re going to get the message, too, that economically, if we don’t do something, we’re going to bankrupt ourselves. There’s just no way that we can continue to have the kind of impacts that we have and be able to pay for them. Eventually I think it will become adopted by both, the right and the left, the conservatives and the liberals.
JM: It does seem to be when it moves more into the realm of economic considerations, obviously jobs being so critical now. And we so appreciate you spending a few minutes with us. We hope to speak with you later in the series as well. You have some really neat little units in front of you. Wonder if you just could give us a little tour of these little beautiful solar cars. Do you mind doing that?
PH: I would be glad to do that. You know there’s one word that teachers will remember and that’s the word “free.” And so I thought a little hard but I finally came up with an acronym, fabulous resources for energy education: F.R.E.E., free at C triple E. We have the resources that you need to teach about energy. And it doesn’t have to be a teacher, it can be a 4-H leader, and it can be Girl Scout, Boy Scout leader. It can be a church group that wants to learn more about energy education. I can loan them a kit that they can then build a model solar car. They can build a model wind turbine and then they can either send them back to us or if they want to keep them, they’re very inexpensive. We’ve developed these units right here and they’re more than just a toy. You can learn so much about these. I’m just going to ask Stuart here.
PH: Here’s your car, he’s holding it in his hand right now.
ST A solar car in my hand.
ST That’s the first time that’s happened.
PH: Right, okay. And because we’re indoors, I’ve got a flashlight. So I’m going to hit it[ with a flashlight.
ST: Oh, the wheels! They’re spinning! That tickled. [Laughs]
PH: And this is exactly the...
ST: Wow, that is amazing actually.
PH: This is what happens. The kids put these together. They step outside and the first time the sun hits him, they have exactly the same reaction.
ST: Wow, that’s incredible because it’s so instant. I used to think solar power—yeah, okay you got some light and then the energy sort of gets built up and then somewhere is transferred to something. But that was, as soon as the torch came on, the wheels started turning.
PH: Uh-huh. And the neat thing about this is, this little car can teach you about center of gravity. It can teach you about electronics. And as you look at it, what do you think, if I were to shade the panel that runs the car, would it matter if I shaded it side to side or top to bottom?
ST: Oh, oh dear! It’s a science question.
PH: Yes it is.
ST: Yeah, can you repeat that for me?
PH: Right. So we’ve got this beautiful little panel.
PH: And it’s actually five little panels together and they’re strung together like bead on a necklace. Will it matter if I cover up one of the beads?
PH: Or if I were to cover it up like from top to bottom on a necklace would be. So side to side versus top to bottom. Does it make a difference?
PH: Would you like to find out?
PH: He says, “No.” Let’s find out. So we’re going to ask you to hold the light…
ST: I hope that’s light.
PH: …and you may have to hold the light as well, okay?
ST: Does having two torches make a difference?
PH: Well, go ahead and shine them both on. We got to have a lot of light for this. and can you hear the car going?
PH: Okay. So here we are going to go. We are going to shade it from side to side. How much have I got shaded now?
ST: About a third.
PH: How much now?
ST: Over half.
PH: It’s still running.
ST: Still running. Yes, it’s still running.
PH: I’ve got maybe 80, 90 percent.
PH: …and it was still running.
PH: Okay, so that was side to side.
PH: All right. Now let us try, top to bottom.
ST: Oh, I was wrong. It stopped all together.
PH: When I covered how much?
ST: Just like 10 percent or something.
PH: One of the panels…
ST: Just one of the panels.
PH: …one of the five, one of the five.
ST: Okay, because they’re all like, you know, they’re only to work together as one.
PH: Actually, this is where we go from here. We ask students, well, how’s this solar panel made? What’s it made of? They’re made of silicon, they’re made of glass. Glass is an insulator, and as long as the light is shining on there, each one of those five little panels acts as a battery. If you shut off even one of those panels, it turns into a giant resistor. If you can imagine a string of Christmas tree lights that are all one after another after another, and if you unscrew one, what happens to the others?
ST: I should have remembered that. For all those Christmases where the one light bulb went and then they all went off.
PH: Yeah, okay, what you just learned...
ST: See, I didn’t really learn anything from that experience.
PH: You should’ve had more of an enquiry learning background here.
ST: I was too taken up with the fact that it was Christmas and there were presents under the tree.
ST: In my defense.
PH: But the neat thing is, from this little toy, we’ve just learned an awful lot about solar energy and the application is that I have a big solar array outside of my building, I have to be very careful how that gets shaded because if even just one of those panels gets shaded, it can stop the energy production on the entire array. There is so much you can learn out of a toy.
ST: I had Lego as a kid and I still don’t like the DIY so...
PH: Oh. [Laughs]
ST: Doesn’t always work.
PH: Yeah. But solar, you know, the minute the kid sees it and he takes it out in the sidewalk and then circles around, it works.
ST: Yeah, now that was really impressive actually. And I want one but want it to be slightly bigger.
PH: Uh-hum, big enough so you can drive it around.
PH: Well, and that’s another thing that you can learn from this. You don’t actually just put a solar panel on your car because solar is a little bit too diffuse of an energy source. You either need to have a huge area or a lot of time. And so what you do is you charge a battery with it. Then you’ll have a concentrated energy source that you put in your car but you can still use the sun to do it.
JM: Hmm…. That’s sounds something like a little radio station that I know down in Fairfield. Thanks so much for sharing so much of the good the work that you’re doing, the good green work, as it were. Any final thoughts?
PH: Just that my cup is always half full. I really do think we’ll be okay. I think we’re going to pull through this. I have two grandsons. I don’t want to condemn them to a world where it’s going to be a dangerous place to live. I want them to have safe place. I want to them to have healthy place.
JM: Beautifully said. Thank you so much. From CEEE, we’ve been getting it right from the source and we’ll be back in just a while.
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JM: And this is James Moore. You’re listening to the Dream Green series right here on solar-powered KRUU-FM, home of the first and only solar-powered radio station in the Midwest. I’m here with Stewart Tanner, my co-host for the series and we have on the line with us, Kevin Nordmeyer. We are really pleased to speak with Kevin. Kevin is the director of the Iowa Energy Center. He is also someone who has been involved for a long time in the area of energy efficiency and sustainability. We are really pleased to say that we’re speaking with him just after visiting up at the CEEE building, and that is the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at UNI, Iowa’s first modern sustainable building that was designed by Kevin. We will hear a little bit about that. Also, Kevin was involved with the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities office and training facility which has won recognition as one of the top ten examples of sustainable design in the country. He is connected with almost everything green going on in the state. We’re going to hear a lot about that and what he’s doing there. How are you doing today, Kevin?
Kevin Nordmeyer: Very well, and it’s nice to be here talking with you.
ST: Perhaps we could start by having a summary of what the Iowa Energy Center does and is all about.
KM: The energy center was created in 1990 by the Iowa legislature. It is part of the Energy Efficiency Act of that year. The goals established by the legislation are to maximize energy efficiency, serve as a model to Iowans, to assess technologies, then to conduct and sponsor research education and demonstration activities across Iowa regarding energy efficiency and renewable energy use. We can fund Iowa’s academic institutions and not-for-profit organizations in the state. If you go to our website which is www.energy.iastate.edu, you’ll see a history of all the different projects the center has funded over the years.
ST: Well, first of all I’d like to say, you know, I recommend people visiting your website because it’s a fantastic resource actually, and we fully inend to put a link to it on the Dream Green website as well. There’s something for everybody there and, whether you’re a business or whether you’re individual, looking for tips for your residence, believe me, it’s pretty much comprehensively covered. It’s something of a visionary work, isn’t it, to connect breakthrough technologies to practical applications?
KM: Right. The transferability of research is a key component of what we try to do. It seems like in the recent years there’s been a lot of proposals that we received in terms of the bio-economy, converting biomass to energy, in terms of fuels and chemicals and bi-products, trying to displace some petroleum. We’ve served as a catalyst to help, to grow that in Iowa. In the late 1990s and 2000, our Center sponsored a grant to Iowa State University to build the BECON facility in which we then manage. [Biomass Energy Conversion Facility in Nevada, Iowa.] It is the biomass energy conversion facility and that’s a pilot scale facility to demonstrate current and future technologies on how to convert biomass to fuels, chemicals and co-products.
JM: Well, that’s great. I want to just shift the topic a little bit on you and say, that first of all, visiting the CEEE building—and that is the Center for Energy and Environmental Education—that you’ve created at the UNI. Really, congratulations on that. That is a beautiful building there.
KM: Well, thank you. I was fairly new out of school at that time. Its goals for that project were pretty visionary for University in Northern Iowa to be a sustainable building. If you put this into perspective, we were hired in designing it in 1992 and the United States Green Building Council, the founders of LEED that you’ve mentioned early on, that organization didn’t start nationally until 1993 and they didn’t develop LEED until 2000. We were the first pilot. So this was a facility that was several years ahead of its time. When we were asking folks about, you know, what this carpet is made of? Is it recyclable? What kind of volatile inorganic compounds off-gas from these different products? Tell me about the recycled content of the ceiling tiles, and so forth. Product suppliers didn’t know very much about that, at least the reps didn’t know much at the time. So the United States Green Building Council really has transformed the market place. If you’re a supplier right now of a material, if you aren’t talking about the green aspects, the recycling aspects, or the healthy aspects of materials, you’re behind the curve.
JM: We’re speaking with Kevin Nordmeyer, who is the Director of Iowa Energy Center, but we keep hearing this theme, even in the short time that we’ve started going around the state talking to key people about almost what I would call a back-to-the-future approach where we’re re-enlivening values that were there almost an Iowa’s value thing, do you care to comment on that?
KM: Funny, I’d like to say is this, if you’d asked an architect from 1890 or before, you’d say we’re designing sustainability—were using daylight harvesting and rain water harvesting and all these fancy terms we have today—they would just laugh and say, “Well, of course, that’s just what we do because that’s all we have.” Today we’ve had a couple of generations of architects at least, and Americans, that haven’t experienced anything but air conditioning, haven’t experienced anything but designing buildings with mechanical systems. We have to change those paradigms to say, well, let’s first try to design this building as passively as possible and as lightly as possible, in terms of its ecological footprint. And then apply extremely efficient systems, extremely sophisticated controls, if the budget can afford it, to really maximize the efficiency of this building for the times of year that we need mechanical ventilation and the comfort that’s required of modern day Americans.
ST: Well, that brings us neatly on to really the other very crucial area. We’ve talked a little about renewable energy but obviously the other side of the equation is energy efficiency and many people say you don’t have to generate that energy in the first place. That is clearly a very important focus, an important focus for the center. I noticed that there are many initiatives in that area. Perhaps you’d like to talk about a few of them.
KM: It’s been a few years back—probably been four years now—the Center developed the Home Series to help Iowans understand. We have them in print copy that we can mail to folks or they can download copies of PDFs online. But they go through sort of a home assessment—it’s not an audit process—but it’s just sort of a series of little brochures, little newsletters, if you will, that discuss how to make your home more efficient. To look at it as a home owner and apply energy efficiency techniques to your home. The first step obviously with a homeowner or even a business, is to contact your local utility and see what programs they offer in terms of energy efficiency rebates and incentives. Most utilities across the state invest their own utilities, the RECs and the municipal utilities in Iowa. Many of them have programs that can help you offset some of the upfront costs. But efficiency, you’re right, is the very first step and our building that we have at Des Moines Community College is a unique energy efficiency research laboratory. It’s a little classroom building that has two rooms that are internal, two identical rooms that face east, two identical rooms that face south, two identical rooms that face west. And they have an A system and a B system for mechanical systems. All of these sensors and controls across the entire facility, over 2,000 monitoring points across the facility. So right now we can take, for example, and change out one window with a new type of glass in one room facing south and use the other room that’s facing south that’s identical to it as a control, so we can measure the energy benefit for different types of lighting systems or window systems and things like that in the building. So that’s energy efficiency, commercial energy efficiency research facility, that’s still unique across the country. If you want to get to energy independence, if you will, or net zero energy construction, is the big term today, the first step is energy efficiency. And if you just think of a very simple bar chart in your head, if the building is going to consume X amount of energy if it’s just designed to the building code, what we try to do is to design buildings firstly that by their orientation, by their shape, by their volume, by how the windows are placed for day lighting, by the insulating values of the envelope, just by the building shape in volume and orientation and structure itself, try to design it as passively as possible, try to minimize the amount of loads that you designed to from mechanical systems. So once you’ve done that—designed the building optimally for efficiency—then you design very efficient systems to meet those reduced loads, to get that down to thirty, forty or maybe fifty percent of what would be required for a typical code compliant building. And once you do that, then the resulting amount of energy is what you try to and apply renewables that you can afford to get in down to zero or near in that zero as much as you can.
JM: From your vantage point, starting all this beautiful architecture and these sustainable practices, just give your sense of, where were at and where we can go, if you would.
KM: It’s really interesting, just from my architectural background, looking at how things have transformed in that industry, the building industry in the last ten years. If we look at which sectors were some of the early adopters of the LEED system, for example, was the federal government and then the universities also were very early adopters across the country because they were responding to student demands, I believe, as well. So that the young folks in America were starting to look at, when they were looking at what university they go to in college, they were starting to ask questions about what kind of sustainability plans do you have on your campus. The private sector, as you mentioned, was one that has been coming on a lot in the last few years. There’s a lot of real estate professionals that are starting to understand and market how buildings could be more valuable if they are green. The tenants are starting to demand buildings that are green when they’re looking where to rent space. So it’s a little slower in the Midwest but it started on the coast and it’s now coming to the Midwest as well, where there’s just more discussion on all of these different sectors in terms of making buildings more high performance and sustainable.
ST: I just wanted to ask you about, you know, moving forward again, looking into the future to specifically address renewable energy and the energy mix. What do you think will be the situation in ten, fifteen years time in the state of Iowa? How much will it be renewable? How much nuclear? What’s your particular vision of the future?
KM: I think, given the current debates in our legislature, I think they’ll be some mix likely of nuclear through those assessments that are being discussed at the legislature. There’ll be some mix of nuclear. I think wind, because of our resources here and because it’s shown that it’s proven. I think you’ll see more wind development. I think you’ll see smaller wind production facilities on farms and businesses when the wind is appropriate for those properties. I think you’ll see companies building larger turbines. I think you’ll continue to see a growth in wind because it has such a substantial foothold already in the industry as well. But I think the smaller or distributed projects you’ll likely see grow over time as well. Solar, solar thermal, solar hot water systems and solar P.V., if those costs continue to come down on those systems, you’ll see more people adopting those on homes and businesses across the state. I believe we will become hopefully more efficient in our building designs. If we do our job of helping Iowans to make their buildings more efficient and if the economic structure as such across the state that allows more wind and more distributed generation on sight, we’ll get a better balance and move toward that sort of energy independent state.
JM: Well, great. I really have appreciated you giving us a sense of what of the Iowa Energy Center is all about. But I’m wondering, as part of this Dream Green series, we’re going around different places all over the state, talking with innovators, looking at best practices. Obviously, we’ve arrived at a very core foundational part of it in speaking with you, Kevin Nordmeyer. I’m wondering if there’s anything we’ve left out, anything you’d like to share with us that we haven’t talked about.
KM: No, I think you’ve done a good job of asking the questions on the key issues that are in front of our state and I think your program here has some great goals in terms of reaching out the projects across the state. I think that’s a great idea.
JM: Well, thank you very much. Great speaking with you and keep up all the great work at the Iowa Energy Center and we’ll be back in just a moment with more of the Dream Green series right here on solar-powered KRUU-FM.
JM: And that’s Dave Moore—no relation unfortunately—but the song is “Big Drafty House.” And you’re probably asking how does this big drafty house go along with the green building? Well, one leads to the other, one hopes, with retrofits, and we just wanted to feature a wonderful Iowa artist. Dave Moore was actually the very first artist in our studios before they were even up and running back in 2006, here at solar-powered KRUU-FM. Stuart, I know you wanted to bring up some additional points. What are you thinking?
ST: I just wanted to pick up on the whole issue of biofuel, the production of ethanol, particularly from corn. Remember we were talking to Pat Higby and we had a wonderful conversation about a variety of subjects and certainly production of ethanol was one of those areas. I think, you know, what we need to highlight is the fact that it’s still very much a debated issue as to whether producing ethanol from corn is viable, sustainable, and good for the environment and how much that produces CO2 emissions. It’s particularly the case if you’re setting aside land used to produce corn for ethanol or crops for ethanol which otherwise might be used for food.
And there is concern that that will push up the price of food and also it creates some structural fragilities, if you have weather-related events or similar things that lower the production of food crops, then you see prices escalating. And actually that’s something that’s happening right at this moment with corn futures going up. Part of that is because of an expectation of a fall in the corn crop. That also is not a pleasing use for those that rely on corn as animal feed stock, so they are not best supporters either.
Also, we need to realize that ethanol production is subsidized by the taxpayer and that’s also a very contentious. It’s subsidized through something called the volumetric ethanol excise tax credit and the taxpayers pay more than 5 billion to oil and gas conglomerates like ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, to blend ethanol with gasoline each year. In this current time of looking at cost savings for the government to reduce the deficit, then certainly that subsidy is hotly debated as well as both on the level of whether oil company should be subsidized for this and also whether you are subsidizing, creating ethanol out of corn which is not perhaps one of the best uses for supporting renewable energy.
JM: Isn’t the argument though for the oil companies, this is a way to encourage them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do?
ST: Yes. That’s the argument that is used to support the subsidy. The counter argument is that they probably would do it anyway and that they don’t need the subsidy. Brazil produces a great deal of ethanol itself from sugarcane. It doesn’t subsidize in that way. And in fact, you know, obviously it has one of the economies that uses ethanol percentage of consumption to the largest extent.
JM: Of course, we are looking at record profits for the oil companies, as well, of recent times, too. So I guess all these factoring in and make for an interesting argument on both sidesm I guess.
ST: Ethanol fuels anyway the trend is to make biofuels mix. A part of the law is being mandated both in the United States and in Europe what percentage is dictated that you have to produce as ethanol to go into gasoline. There are other issues surrounding ethanol: compared to gas, it doesn’t produce as much energy per amount of fluid, if you like. So that’s an issue right there. As I said, if you start converting land that would otherwise be used for food production then, you know, there is the whole issue of escalating costs of food which do hurt the less well-off more than the people in the First World. Because, if you have an escalation in food costs in the First World as a percentage of people’s income is still relatively low whereas in other countries the percentage of the people’s income can be much higher, it can cause real hardship and, actually, that’s led to protests and even violence in other countries.
JM: Well, you bring up some great points on this one and it’s one that will continue. I mean, I guess for farmers, it’s a mixed blessing. Prices go up, getting more for their yield, but at what cost in the long run? It’s a very interesting and—I don’t know, if controversial is the right word—area anyway, because all these subsidies, what that does in an era where people are saying, “Wait, let’s hold on the government being involved.” And yet we see the government intimately involved in a lot of these areas like food and certainly energy as well. So in wrap up, what can we say?
ST: One of things that Pat was pointing out is in the early stages of an industry. none of them are hugely efficient to begin with. If you support it, eventually it will become much more efficient, much more, in this case, greener and sustainable. So, for instance, we know that there are cellulosic projects in Iowa, which means that that is going to allow you to use other parts of the plant, not just the corn aspect. But other parts of the plant in order to produce the biofuel. Orr to use other crops such as prairie grass or switch grass has been proposed is even DM poplar trees that are now being proposed as well.
And use more of the plant and the economics of it are better the sustainability aspects are better than just using corn. So I think her point is that supported, let’s do more research, let’s have the signs going forward. We will make this work better. We will make both the sustainability aspect and the economics of it work better going into the future. You have new things breaking into the news all the time, such as British companies buying up large areas of land in Africa to produce biofuels for the European market. It’s an ongoing debate. It’s a debate that’s fast-moving. There are people lined up on either side. I think it’s something that, you know, James and I obviously we’re going to take some of these arguments forward as we go around the state and speak to experts in this area. So we will be debating many of these things going forward.
JM: And I just wanted to add, of course, governments use subsidies as a way to promote industries or things that may be good for the public sphere as well, even though there is some debate on whether any of that should be done, and free markets and so forth. But it’s like how you direct what, to what degree, and whether it becomes entrenched in something that can be used or not. And I think part of what we’re doing here is looking at what is working, what can work and going forward, some exciting areas to explore.
Join us next week. We have a focus on an event called the Solar Splash. A world event where people compete from colleges, even some high schools, from around the country, also around the world, trying to make better solar boats and competing. You don’t want to miss that show, some great information, and some great people in Cedar Falls. So, that and much more, coming ahead on the Dream Green series. This is James Moore with Stuart Tanner. We’ll see you next week, right here on solar-powered KRUU-FM.
Produced by Stuart Tanner and James Moore at solar-powered KRUU 100.1 FM in Fairfield Iowa. Online at kruufm.com. The Dream Green series was funded in part by a grant from the Iowa office of energy independence and nearly 70 individuals, companies, and organizations. For a list of sponsors visit our website at greeniowa.org. Archives available for download under creed of commons license.
Music by Zilla and Dave Moore.