It’s Now Easier (and Cheaper) to Be Green

Who doesn’t want to be kind to the environment? When building green became a thing, everybody jumped on board. People embraced the terminology, though without much in the way of standards or definition.

“Everybody’s got ‘green’ something,” said Ryan McCoon of Endura Performance Homes.

Today, “green building” is almost passé. The preferred term is right there in the name of McCoon’s firm. But don’t take it just from him.

“‘Green’ building has been co-opted,” said Christopher Strickland of Strickland Ewing and Associates, which does energy audits. “What we are using now is ‘performance.’”

Builders and retrofitters are finding it’s not simply good for the environment to find ways to save energy, it’s economically responsible. That’s a change from just a few years ago, when the synonym for green in the building industry was “expensive.”

Many opted for lower initial costs, using cheaper, less environmentally-friendly materials and practices. Cheaper was better. Now advances in technology, decreasing costs, and longer-term vision are coming together in ways that were the exception, rather than the rule.

Part of it is that being energy conscious is no longer just about saving the planet, it’s about saving money, even if that means spending more up front.

“We’re looking longer term,” said Kirstin Policastro, the financial analyst and project manager for E3, which analyzes the efficiency of building systems (lighting, HVAC, controls systems, and the entire building envelope) to reduce energy consumption. Consumers are looking long term as well – if they can save thousands over the course of a few years by spending hundreds now, it’s increasingly worth it in their minds.

So green building – a.k.a. performance construction – is coming into its own through various means, whether it’s from the ground up or renovating to better suit the tenants and their pocketbooks. It can take many forms, whether it’s properly sealing a home or opting for alternative energy.

“I’ve got nine or ten homes planned for summer, and eight are focused on looking at renewable energy,” said McCoon.

He’s become an advocate of solar panels. “The cost has come down. Five years ago, it would be $6 or $7 a watt. Now it’s $2.75 to $3.25.”

He also said the culture surrounding the look of the panels has changed. They used to be viewed as an eyesore. Not so today.

“Ten years ago, people would ask why you’ve ruined your roof. Now it’s cool. They’re more socially acceptable.”

Of course, solar panels aren’t the only way in which the industry is becoming performance-oriented. Things like additional foam insulation under the slab, the design and orientation of the building, and using low-E windows (dual pane with argon between them) are all items which can lend to a high-performance home.

Energy Wasters

But what about those built years ago, before energy concerns became so important? That’s where people like Strickland come in. Performing an energy audit (the company is adding another dba, Strickland Energy Consulting) can show people where their home is using – or losing – energy, as well as giving them ideas on how to address those areas. “Every situation is different,” Strickland said.

He said the two most common energy-wasting problems they see are inadequate air sealing and inadequate insulation. And the one can affect the other. “You decrease the R value of insulation if it’s not properly sealed,” he said. “That lets cold air in and warm air out.”

Strickland said consumers typically come to his firm with concerns about a particular issue or area. Sometimes they just want to be assured they’re not wasting money or energy. “New homeowners paying an energy bill for the first time may ask, ‘Is this typical?’” Strickland said.

If they can reassure the customer, then the consultation ends. But if they believe it to be out of line, they can investigate and determine the cause, providing the owner an opportunity to save money.

His company offers three different price points for its work, starting at $299 for the Bronze Package, which offers interior and exterior inspection, blower door test and building leakage report, and a basic improvement checklist. The Silver Package (the most popular plan, according to Strickland) adds an infrared thermal imaging report. The Gold Package includes a custom energy analysis and energy cost reduction recommendations, even a payback schedule.

Traverse City’s E3 takes it a step further, offering an integrated service.

“We can go into a building and look at it as a system,” said Brian Johnson, head of sales and marketing. The three-fold goal is to reduce the client’s overall energy consumption and its operational costs, while making the facility more comfortable.

One recent project involved the Leelanau County Law Enforcement Center. Johnson said the sheriff reported papers curling on his desk in the summer from the humidity, while fluctuations in temperature saw various personnel turning thermostats up and down. E3 was hired to analyze and make recommendations. Ultimately, the firm was employed for a $1 million renovation, which successfully addressed the problems.

“It was about employee comfort and energy savings,” said Policastro.

Johnson said E3 also was instrumental in getting Grand Traverse County to become a PACE county. PACE – Properly Assessed Clean Energy – enables owners of commercial, industrial, multifamily and nonprofit property owners to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy projects by creating a special assessment allowing businesses to pay off loans via their local property taxes. The public-private partnership Lean & Green Michigan brings private capital to help companies solve energy problems, so no taxpayer dollars are involved.

Equipment Investments 

Another retrofitting took place last August at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa when it installed a system with an engine that runs on natural gas and generates both electricity and hot water, the latter as a by-product of cooling the engine. It is a technology that has been in use in a variety of commercial and industrial applications for some time. However, this is the first installation in a resort/hotel setting in the U.S.

The project was a cooperative effort by the unit’s manufacturer, YANMAR Energy Systems of Germany and Japan, along with Keen Technical Solutions, LLC of Traverse City, A.O. Smith of Milwaukee, and the U.S. Department of Energy. Keen focuses on energy conservation strategies, utilizing its expertise in HVAC/R, electrical and engineering industries.

Grand Traverse Resort and Spa’s Director of Engineering, Tom Peters, said, “Over the last several years we have been replacing outmoded electrical and mechanical equipment with new, more energy-efficient equipment that saves money and decreases our carbon footprint. The Micro CHP fits very well into that strategy.” Clean hot water from the unit feeds to the Resort’s commissary, bakery, tower kitchen, and tower kitchen dishwasher. According to estimates, the Resort could see annual savings of electrical energy of as much as $20,000 per year.

The test-marketing project calls for eight such units to be installed in various applications around the country, funded with $1.8 million dollars in grants from YANMAR Energy Systems, A.O. Smith, and the Department of Energy. The project at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa also received installation support from DTE Energy.