ZETA Communities on NPR


As I was listening to the radio this morning, I heard a story about Bay Area company ZETA Communities…

– – –

As Population, Consumption Rise, Builder Goes Small

The planet may not feel any different today, but there are now 7 billion people on it, according to the United Nations.

That number will continue to rise, of course, and global incomes are likely to rise as well. That means more cars and computers, and bigger homes: the kinds of things Americans take for granted. It’s that rise in consumption that has population experts worried…

In an industrial park outside of Sacramento, Calif., there’s a factory inside what looks like an old airplane hangar.

Zeta Communities builds modular homes here. Project manager Scott Wade says they’re not like “stick-built” homes — “stick-built meaning they build it one piece at a time,” Wade says, “whereas we build it an assembly at a time.”

In cities, modules can be stacked to make a new generation of efficient buildings. At Zeta headquarters, architect Taeka Takagi rolls out a blueprints with one of Zeta’s prototypes.

“It is a micro studio,” she says. “The units are under 300 square feet.”

You can read or listen to the entire story on the NPR website.

– – –

You can also watch videos of a unit being built in the ZETA factory and a unit being installed on our website here.

– – –


Bad News About CBECS 2007


I just got an email pointing me towards the following press release from the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

CBECS Status

EIA regrets to report that the 2007 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) has not yielded valid statistical estimates of building counts, energy characteristics, consumption, and expenditures.  Because the data do not meet EIA standards for quality, credible energy information, neither data tables nor a public use file will be released.  In the interim, EIA will develop key energy indicators for commercial buildings in collaboration with EIA’s forecasting staff for the Annual Energy Outlook.

Factors contributing to the failure of the 2007 survey include the use of a cheaper but experimental survey frame and sampling method by EIA’s prime contractor, design errors in the construction of the method and selection of common building types, and an inability to monitor and manage its use in a production survey environment.  EIA has reviewed and introduced significant changes in its procurement and project management standards that will prevent this type of loss in the future.

As reported in the EIA Press Release, “Immediate Reductions in EIA’s Energy Data and Analysis Programs Necessitated by FY 2011 Funding Cut” (http://www.eia.gov/pressroom/releases/press362.cfm), work on the 2011 CBECS has been suspended at this time.

The Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) is a national sample survey that collects information on the stock of U.S. commercial buildings, their energy-related building characteristics, and their energy consumption and expenditures. Commercial buildings include all buildings in which at least half of the floorspace is used for a purpose that is not residential, industrial, or agricultural, so they include building types that might not traditionally be considered “commercial,” such as schools, correctional institutions, and buildings used for religious worship.

The CBECS was first conducted in 1979; the eighth, and most recent survey, was conducted in 2003. CBECS is currently conducted on a quadrennial basis.

– – –

End Use


This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

– – –

Studies frequently segment energy or water use by “end use”,  or the reason the energy was consumed, in order to better understand how the resource is used. For both energy and water, consumption is often first broken down by sector (commercial, residential, industrial) and then by end use (lighting, heating, etc.)

The first graph below is of California electricity use by sector. The second graph below is of California electricity use by sector AND by end use.

The end use categorizations in the graphs above are still pretty broad categories – some analyses break them down even further. The original data in the graphs comes from a CEC staff report. I used the same aggregate categories as Flex Your Power:

  • The Commercial Misc. category includes refrigeration, hot water, cooking, and office equipment.
  • The Residential Other category includes water heating, cooking, pool/spa, clothes washers, dishwashers, and freezers.
  • Industrial Process includes process fans, heating, pumping, and refrigeration.
  • Industrial Other includes material handling and processing.
  • The “Other” category includes street lighting and other government end uses.

– – –

What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

– – –

World Energy Consumption Up 49% By 2035?


The U.S. Energy Information Administration issued its “International Energy Outlook 2010” report last month. The report predicts that fossil fuels will continue to provide more than 75% of global energy demand for the next 25 years. It also predicts that world energy consumption will increase 49% over the next 25 years. Developing nations are predicted to account for the huge majority of the increase in global energy demand.

International Energy Outlook 2008 Report Cover.  Need help, contact the National Energy Information Center at 202-586-8800.

The full report can be accessed here. Report highlights can be found here.

Finding Data – The Greendex


photo link

For the third year running National Geographic has teamed up with Globe Scan to provide the Greendex, an annual survey designed “to develop an international research approach to measure and monitor consumer progress towards environmentally sustainable consumption.”  Specifically, the Greendex is a tool to help consumers worldwide to both understand their consumption patterns and to be able to view them within context to others.

The Greendex survey questions were designed to capture the participant’s knowledge, behavior and views on environmental issues and consumer habits ranging from transportation to food choices. The study is based on a sample of 17,000 individuals in 17 countries (14 in 2008). So, while perhaps not a truly  “definitive” study on a global scale, the Greendex survey countries represent the heaviest hitters in terms of resource consumption, and the Greendex 2010 Report provides some interesting insights.

Some notables from the study:

– Respondents from 10 of the 17 countries polled showed an increase in “environmentally friendly consumer behavior” between this year and last.

– Consumers with the highest rankings for “green” choices are in developing nations. Top scores go to India, Brazil and China (in that order).

– Uh-oh USA … we’re showing slight improvement relative to ourselves last year, but we’re still at the bottom of the heap.

– The strongest changes in personal behavior that made positive impacts were in the Housing category (home energy efficiency).

Read the highlights report here.

Calculate your own personal “Greendex” here.

And finally, how reliable are self-reported behavior surveys anyway? Separate the fact from fiction with the Market Basket report.

Virtual Water


This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

– – –

Virtual water (also referred to as embodied water) is the volume of fresh water used to produce a product at the location of production. This concept of virtual water applies to everything we use or buy, such as clothes, electronics, food, and building materials. For example, the average virtual water associated with 1 egg would be 53 gallons.

(For those familiar with energy issues, this is similar to embodied energy.)

The creator of the virtual water concept, Professor John Anthony Allan, was initially researching agricultural water issues in the Middle East and concluded that the region could survive with scarce water because it was importing large amounts of “virtual water” embedded in its food imports.

You can hear a podcast of Professor Allan’s seminar on virtual water here.

– –

What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

Finding Data – GDP and Electricity Consumption


I thought it would be interesting to graph GDP against a metric of per capita energy use (in this case kWh/capita).

(Click on the chart to see a larger version.)

There are a number of interesting things to note about this chart. First, compared to the other countries shown, the United States has a really high GDP. Counting countries individually (sometimes the European Union is counted as one entity), the USA has the highest GDP, then Japan, then China. In general, the chart indicates that as a country’s GDP increases, so does kWh/capita. If we also take the size of the population into account, this is one reason many people are increasingly concerned about the potential effects of economic growth in India and China on climate change. Exceptions on the chart seem to generally be very cold countries (Canada, Sweden, and Russia) or very hot countries (Australia and Saudi Arabia).

In the chart above, the data comes from Key World Energy Statistics 2009, put out by the International Energy Agency (data is for 2007).

Electricity consumption is calculated for the entire country as gross production + imports – exports – transmission/distribution losses. It is then divided by the population of the country to get the per capita value.

Editorial – How Much Space is Enough?


Houses have been getting bigger. Over the past fifty plus years (until 2008), the size of the average new house more than doubled, from 1,000 square feet or less in 1950 to 2,265 in 2000 (values from NAHB). The percentage of new homes smaller than 1,200 square feet has been dropping since 1987, while the percentage of new homes larger than 2,400 grew from 21% to 38% between 1987 and 2001 (values from this study). Interestingly, the size of the average new home dropped in 2008 (data here and an article here).

The general trend of larger and larger houses has a direct impact on the environment. Larger houses require more land to build on, more materials for construction, more energy to heat, cool, and light, and result in more waste, both during construction and demolition. While it is expected that there may be some “economy of scale” as houses get larger, there is a widely held suspicion that larger homes consume proportionally more materials because they often have higher ceilings and more complex geometry. Larger houses also require more materials to furnish and decorate.

It should be noted that larger homes are not only increasing in area (square footage); they are also increasing in volume, which may ultimately have a larger impact on the energy consumption of the house. Larger houses are usually constructed with extra features that are not surface area efficient (such as complicated roofs and dormer windows) and which consume more energy for heating and cooling than a compact house of the same volume.

New houses should be both smaller and more compact.

However, it has been difficult to build smaller homes. Aside from the social cache afforded those with larger homes, zoning rules and mortgage practices have also pushed “bigger is better.” For example, mortgage lenders often required the home to be “three times the value of the land,” which then determined a minimum house size for a certain area.

The recent, slight tilt towards smaller home is likely due to the recession and the constrained finances of those building, financing and buying homes. But it is encouraging. When considering what they could afford financially, people chose smaller houses. If we consider what we can “afford” using metrics of energy, water, and materials, we should prioritize building smaller houses.

Finding Data – The Water Intensity of Food


Many of us have heard that we should eat locally grown food to reduce the energy needed to transport and preserve the food between the source and our table. Many of us have also heard that we should reduce our meat consumption to reduce the amount of land and other resources needed to support our diets and lifestyles. Another metric to consider is how much water is needed to produce different foods.

Based on values from the Water Footprint Network, I compiled a chart of how much water is needed to produce certain foods. This is obviously not an inclusive list of all foods, but gives an idea of the range of values for different kinds of foods. These values will also differ in different countries and regions. As noted by the director of the Water Footprint Network, Arjen Y. Hoekstra, “Water problems are often closely tied to the structure of the global economy. Many countries have significantly externalised their water footprint, importing water-intensive goods from elsewhere. This puts pressure on the water resources in the exporting regions, where too often mechanisms for wise water governance and conservation are lacking.”

In the table on the left, values are generally for liters per kilogram unless otherwise noted. In the table on the right, values are generally for gallons per pound unless otherwise noted.

You can calculate your own water footprint with this calculator for an estimate of which parts of your diet and lifestyle are most water intensive.