Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Funding opportunities for Energy Improvements in Minnesota

Lack of funding is the most common hurdle to incorporating energy improvements. Luckily, there are a lot of options in Minnesota to help. Thank you to CERTS-NE for keeping track of these updates!

-A Request for Proposals (RFP) is posted for Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) competitive funding; responses are being accepted through January 25, 2010. The RFP is available for download here.

-Questions and answers from the November 10, 2009 Local Government Programs Webinar are now available in the Resources section of the Department of Commerce website.

-Energy Saver residential energy efficiency rebates through the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (MHFA) are now available to those who qualify for Fix-up Fund loans. This includes funding for renewable energy. More information can be accessed here.

-Project ReEnergize, the residential energy efficiency rebate program, has limited remaining funds available. Homeowners can apply for rebates through eligible licensed contractors listed on the Project ReEnergize website. Rebates are available for qualifying energy efficiency improvements, including Energy Star window replacements, advanced attic air sealing, and attic and wall insulation.

-More information on stimulus-funded energy programs can be found at If you have questions, please contact or 800-657-3710.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lessons & Concepts for Advancing Community Wind

Are you or your community interested in wind energy, but are looking for concrete examples of successful projects from which to learn before you begin?

The Minnesota Project just released the report Lessons & Concepts for Advancing Community Wind, which seeks to advance the development of community-based wind projects in the United States. The report highlights keys to success and policy recommendations from three Midwestern wind project case studies. It can be a useful start for communities that are not only searching for information on the basic concept and structure of wind energy, but are also seeking strategies to address potential economic and political challenges.

Click here to download the report.

Click here to learn more about The Minnesota Project.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The truth about Solar in Minnesota

I recently returned from Greenbuild in Phoenix, where the Habitat for Humanity of Central Arizona built a LEED-Platinum Zero Energy Home! The Legacy Project, constructed in 5 days, was built for around $120,000 (including building materials and donated goods and labor), and used solar panels to offset the energy use in the home. After having a conversation with a good building contractor friend who is trying to be more green, I decided to investigate the truth about solar in Minnesota.

Does Minnesota have enough sun? Phoenix has 350 days a year of sunshine and definitely should be taking advantage of solar energy production. Minnesota actually has a lot of solar potential as well. According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Minnesota has more annual solar potential than Houston, Texas. They are a great resource for information on solar feasibility in Minnesota and even have a map that demonstrates solar potential. After looking at this site, you will see that while you may never create excess energy to go back into the grid, the potential for solar is definitely there. Combine this with a well-sealed house and energy-efficient appliances and living behaviors (e.g. turning off your computer when not in use), and you may be completely set!

Aren't solar panels still just too expensive? There are actually a lot of funding sources out there right now. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency can help you find funding for your renewable energy project. Like all things, they do cost money, but as energy prices increase over the next few years, the solar panels may be paying for themselves.

So what about local options? Can you get solar panels that both travel short distances and support our local economy? Minnesota offers two solar panel production plants:

SolarSkies in Starbuck, MN
tenKsolar in Bloomington, MN

What if I just don't like the look of solar panels or am not sold on solar?

Don't forget that the sun can help in ways other than just energy production - passive solar heating (orienting a house with south-facing windows that heat a large thermal mass) and solar hot water systems work great in Minnesota!

Other renewable energy options are also available. The Clean Energy Resource Team (CERTS) network and the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society can help point you in the right direction.

So great job, Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona! Click here to see how Habitat for Humanity of Minnesota is accomplishing its own green goals.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Free Green House Plans

Even though the housing industry is not booming right now, I still receive a number of requests for green house plans from people hoping to build green in the future. Other people call for information on tips for remodeling green.

A while ago, I mentioned Free Green as a limited resource for free green plans. They have now updated their site to include more free and discounted plans, "making green building accessible to all." Click here for some of their free green house plans. Remember to consider smaller house sizes to reduce energy and resource consumption.

Dovetail Partners
also lists a number of other resources for free house plans.

Of course the greenest home may be one that just needs a little green renovating. The Minnesota GreenStar Remodeling program can bring your remodeling project up to green certification standards. The REGREEN program offers guidelines for helping keep your renovation green but does not include certification. Both go beyond increasing energy efficiency and also look at aspects of indoor air quality, water and resource consumption, waste management, renewable energy production, and site impacts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Minnesota Communities teach Swedes about farms, forests, and clean energy

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Swedes were coming to Minnesota to learn about farms and forestry as part of a "green" education exchange. Many Minnesota communities and organizations participated and the exchange led to shared knowledge, new experiences, and happy memories for both the hosts and the visitors.

Minnesota Communities teach Swedes about farms, forests, and clean energy

Swedes’ visit to Minnesota is a Learning Experience for All

Last month Minnesota became home to Swedish business partners Erik Sundell and Per Hallnevik as they traveled across the state to learn more about farming and agricultural practices.

The two decided to visit Minnesota after meeting Minnesotans Kara Slaughter and Alison Lindburg in Sweden last March. Slaughter and Lindburg were participating in the Rotary Club’s Group Study Exchange (GSE) program, where they lived with host families and studied sustainability practices of Swedish communities for five weeks. Lindburg and Slaughter organized the Minnesota tour as a way to continue the education and exchange process.

“Erik and Per were especially interested in seeing harvesting operations, large farms and big machinery,” says Lindburg, director of the Eco-Affordable Housing Program of Minneapolis-based non-profit organization Dovetail Partners. “We were lucky to be able to also include clean energy production and a forestry tour.”

The tour was a collaborative effort of many organizations and communities, and included site visits and tours across Minnesota. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the South Central Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association sponsored tours, including an observational visit of Sun-Opta organic and identity-preserved grain handling. One visit included picking fresh sweet corn right out of the field.

Wet weather conditions impeded the observation of harvesting practices, but other activities kept Hallnevik and Sundell busy. One day included working at the Farmers' Success grain elevator in Clark’s Grove, and another was spent touring the facilities of Hope Creamery. They also visited Aitkin, where they went on a forestry tour and remarked on the similarities in landscape to Sweden.

Common ground was discovered in the use of similar types of logging machinery on the forestry tour. One major difference was pest control – wild hogs are a major cause of agricultural crop damage in Sweden. “They also noted that our lack of biomass markets leads to more non-merchantable trees and coarse woody debris being left in the forest,” says Mark Jacobs, Aitkin County Land Commissioner. “They were not aware of any coarse woody debris retention guidelines in Sweden.”

Hallnevik and Sundell further experienced Minnesota life by staying with host families during their visit. Jim and Nancy Barbour, who hosted in Morris, found it to be a great learning experience. “It was interesting to hear about their crop rotations and to think about farming without GMO crops, which we take for granted,” says Nancy.

Jim Barbour, who gave a tour of the Biomass Gasification project at the University of Minnesota-Morris, learned “that like many American farmers, they have off-farm jobs in addition to their farming.” The Morris tour also included the University’s wind turbine, the North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory, and visits to local farms and farm machinery.

One truly Minnesotan moment occurred during a tour when an eagle flew overhead in the Morris area. “It was as if it had been staged! Just beautiful!” says Jim Barbour.

“Everyone had a great time and they really enjoyed Minnesota,” says Slaughter, tour organizer and board member of non-profit organization Renewing the Countryside. “It was great to teach them about Minnesota and watch everyone pull together to make the tour possible.”

For more information on the tour, see this article.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Made in Minnesota: sourcing local building materials

I just returned from Greenbuild 2009, and the talk this year was focused on reducing carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions. So how do you do this in your community, workplace, home, or building project? One of the simplest ways to do this is to choose local building materials.
I have talked about local in the past and thankfully, there are now even more resources to help you source local building materials right here in Minnesota.

The Dovetail Partners - Minnesota Made project assists communities in meeting sustainability goals and builds projects that use products nearest to specific communities. Dovetail works with the local contractors to put money back into the community, provides green building education, and calculates the environmental impact of using local building materials for each project. Dovetail also offers a map of local building materials and the report Green Building Materials - Made in Minnesota.

The Midwest Home Magazine - Made in Minnesota database allows you to search from over 300 products made in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Building Materials Database from the University of Minnesota's Center for Sustainable Building Research provides a wide array of technical information on building materials, including location and distance traveled for manufacturing.
Remember: not only does choosing local building materials help the environment, but it also helps the local economy!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Reality Check

Trying to figure out how to make your existing house more eco-friendly while not compromising aesthetics? Don't know where to start and think you just can't afford it?

Well the (extremely) nice folks over at Shelter Architecture are not only talented, but are offering a great deal called Reality Check. If you live in Minneapolis or Saint Paul, you can pay $400 for a two-hour on-site home consultation, which includes some rough sketches and ideas on how to make your home more sustainable. Even if you aren't looking to hire them, you should at least check out their website. They are an interesting and sustainable group to keep your eye on!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition

When most people think about "green building", an image of a building or a house probably comes to mind first. But true green building also encompasses aspects of the surrounding environment, such as soil compaction of the site, how water is treated on-site or flows away from the site, and connection to the streets. Even considering the reflectivity of the sidewalks and how many trees provide shade can have an impact, and choosing a site within walking distance of amenities is also important. Many green building standards address this in some way, and the USGBC has even created a standard (LEED - Neighborhood Development) specific to addressing these issues beyond just the structures themselves.

The Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition is a statewide effort that is attempting to apply good design principles to streets in Minnesota, which ties directly into green building and sustainable community development. They are looking for more coalition members and supporters, and are having a comment period until November 9th on the draft report guidelines.

The goals of the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition are:

1. Pass a strong statewide Complete Streets policy in 2010 that includes a concrete implementation process and accountability.

2. Work to ensure ongoing statewide implementation of Complete Streets designs across all jurisdictions.

If successful, the coalition could create streets and roadways in Minnesota that are "designed and operated to be safe and accessible for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclist, and drivers - all users, regardless of age or ability" - which all contribute to the overall sustainability of our communities.

To find more information, go to or contact Ethan Fawley at 651-294-7141 and

Friday, October 16, 2009

Project ReEnergize

Now is a great time to make home energy improvements before the winter settles in Minnesota. As part of the American Recovery and Investment Act, funds are now available to cover portions of improvements that make your home more energy efficient via Project ReEnergize. A home qualifies if it was constructed prior to year 2000 and is 3,000 square feet or less. There are no income restrictions to qualify, and this rebate can be combined with other incentives property owners may receive. Homeowners must have permission to alter the house's shell, and licensed contractors are required to qualify for the rebate. Second homes, mobile homes, condos, and rental properties do not apply.

A few examples of items that qualify for rebate are below; there are more. See the Project ReEnergize or Minnesota GreenStar website for more information.

Energy Efficiency Measures Eligible For Rebate Maximum Rebate per Household

Replacement Energy Star window without attic air sealing $250 per window
Replacement Energy Star window with attic air sealing $300 per window
Advanced air sealing of attic $800
Attic insulation $800
Exterior wall insulation $800
Replacing orphaned atmospherically vented water heater $750

Monday, October 5, 2009

Swedes to Visit Minnesota Farms

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Sweden to study eco-communities. The trip included small and large cities, and also a few farms. We met some Swedes that were interested in continuing the education exchange and visiting Minnesota to learn more about agriculture here. They arrive this Friday. Read the news release below for more information.

6 October 2009

Swedes to visit Minnesota Farms
Tours Part of Continued “Green” Education Exchange

From October 9-16, Minnesota will be home to two Swedish visitors interested in learning about agriculture and farming practices.

The visit is a result of a connection made through the Rotary Club’s Group Study Exchange (GSE) program. Earlier this year, five Minnesotans were selected to travel to Sweden and live with host families for five weeks. That trip included tours focused on sustainability and eco-communities, including visits to sustainable farms.

The October tour in Minnesota is a collaborative effort of many organizations and communities, including two participants from the recent GSE trip to Sweden. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the South Central Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association will be sponsoring tours, and participants will be staying with host families.

“We saw some really great farms when we were in Sweden,” says Kara Slaughter, GSE participant and board member of the non-profit organization Renewing the Countryside. “So when they decided to visit us here, we wanted to show them examples of great farming in Minnesota.”

This month’s tour will include farms and communities across Minnesota that demonstrate a variety of agriculture and farming practices. Tour participants will visit large-scale farming operations, organic farms, active soybean harvesting and corn hybrid test plots. The tour will likely include a visit to the Morris Biomass Gasification plant and North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory.

“The tour in Sweden was a great exchange of ideas and the people that hosted us were so generous,” says Alison Lindburg, GSE participant and staff member of the Minnesota-based non-profit organization Dovetail Partners. “It is really important that we return the favor.”

The tour is still looking for host families and outing opportunities. For more information, please contact Kara Slaughter at 612-396-7404.

For more information:

Contact: Alison Lindburg,, 612-333-0430
Kara Slaughter, 612-396-7404

Green Building Workshops in the Lake States Region

Here are a few green building workshops happening in the Lakes States region in October and November.

7 Oct 2009. Appleton, WI: Building Systems: Retro-commissioning

8 Oct 2009. Brainerd, MN: BAELN Event: Green Business is Good Business Tour

10 Oct 2009. White Bear Lake, MN: Solar Energy: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Photovoltaics

12 Oct 2009. online: Building for the Future: Sustainable Home Design ONLINE

12 Oct 2009. Roseville, MN: MN GreenStar Project Registration Workshop

13 Oct 2009. Apple Valley, MN: Protecting Minnesota's Environment and Saving Dollars: The Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment and Apple Valley's Green Initiatives

13 Oct 2009. Pine Valley, MN: Rain Barrel DYI

14 Oct 2009. Madison, WI: Green Building Workshop Series

15 Oct 2009. Bloomington, MN: Green Growth For Business: How and Why it Benefits the Bottom Line

15 Oct 2009. Milwaukee, WI: Green Building Conference

16-17 Oct 2009. Ashland, WI: Upper Midwest Green Schools Conference

19-21 Oct 2009. Bloomington, MN: 9th Annual BioCycle Conference on Renewable Energy From Organics Recycling Conference

24 Oct 2009. White Bear Lake, MN: Solar Energy:Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Solar Water Heating

28 Oct 2009. Lansing, MI: Green Building Workshop Series

5 Nov 2009. Minneapolis, MN: Green Building Workshop Series

5 Nov 2009. online: Green Building Workshop Series

6-8 Nov 2009. Minneapolis, MN: Go Green Expo Minneapolis

17 Nov 2009. Roseville, MN: MN GreenStar Project Registration Workshop

17 Nov 2009. St. Paul, MN: E3 2009: The Midwest's Premier Energy, Economic and Environmental Conference

18 Nov 2009. online: Achieving Better Results through Design Review

18 Nov 2009. St. Paul, MN: Putting Minnesota on the Map: Next Steps for Building a Smart Grid Coalition in Minnesota

Friday, October 2, 2009

A $4750 Tree

Choosing local materials is not only good for the environment, but is also good for your local economy. This post features a guest writer, Greg Nolan of Snowy Pines Reforestation, whose article "A $4750 Tree" documents the importance of wood as a building material and demonstrates the real-time economic impact felt through the story of following just one tree.

A $4750 Tree
By Greg Nolan of Snowy Pines Reforestation 9/29/09

Several years ago I wrote an article for our local newspaper about a $3000 white pine tree (Long Prairie Leader 2/3/99). I am back with an update on another tree. Many of the things from the first article still hold true today but obviously we have refined our skills as a business with the art of marketing and utilization.

The most recent tree was bigger as it had another ten years to grow, and scaled at over 1000 board feet (Scribner). We hired a local band saw mill and target sawed this wood siding at ¾ inch thick. With the thin kerf saw blade and target sawing at ¾ inch thick, we harvested about 1500 square feet of siding and trim from this one tree. The house that we covered with siding from this tree needed about 1,200 square feet of siding. Including trim and soffit material and allowing for waste, we estimated a bid of $4750. White pine makes beautiful siding and can last over 100 years (see tobacco sheds in SW Wisconsin).

The tree, a broken-topped white pine cut near our mailbox, covered the whole house with material to spare. It was a beautiful tree that was falling apart. A portion of the top almost hit me as I pedaled past on my bike one windy day.

The embodied energy in our locally-harvested trees is mostly solar powered. Sunshine is the energy trees use to produce wood. At our mill, solar energy air-dries the wood and solar electricity runs many of our milling machines. No more than 5 gallons of diesel fuel were used to cut the tree, move it to the mill, saw the logs into siding, and deliver the material to the building site.
One gallon of fossil fuel = $1000 economic activity.
Wood is about ½ carbon by weight, which the tree removes from the atmosphere as it grows. We look at our business of milling salvage trees and installing high value, long-lived wood products as a solar-powered atmospheric carbon mining operation.

When it comes to harvesting trees and turning them into installed wood products, there is a thing called an economic multiplier. Every dollar that grows on a tree (money does grow on trees in my business) turns into about $40 in finished installed wood products. With wood flooring I sometimes see a 50 to 1 economic multiplier, and with house framing material you might only see a 30 to 1 multiplier. Most of the multiplier comes in the form of value-added labor (local high wage jobs).

About $600 of this tree’s added value went into state sales tax and self-employment tax (social security). There are also local real estate taxes figured on the finished house that will come for years to come.

When we moved onto our property over thirty years ago we counted our pole-sized (12 to 18 inch diameter) white pine trees (300) and figured if we cut 3 problem trees each year, that our family forest would have white pine trees for at least 100 years. As we cut these problem trees, more seedlings (in a variety of species) sprout into the holes we make in the forest and the trees that we leave get bigger faster than if we left them crowded. Most of the cutting, over the years, consisted of small and stunted trees but we also have taken some whoppers at times from lightning strikes and wind damage. We have seen this kind of monetary return from our lumbering activities more then once on our yearly harvest. The cull trees we cut today are much bigger then ones we cut in the past.
Our standing timber volume for the three-acre stand of white pine at Snowy Pines has increased in the past thirty years from about 20,000 board feet in 1979 (DNR timber plan) to about 65,000 board feet today (Masconomo Forestry cruise), even as we have cut our ration of two or three trees a year. This would be a production rate of about 500 board feet per acre, per year, which is on the high end but still very possible.

Snowy Pines believes that by encouraging local forestry and wood products entrepreneurs with consumer spending and government purchasing, similar stories could be replicated across the lake state region to produce hundreds if not thousands of green service and manufacturing jobs, while we improve our forests.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sustainability Opportunities for Minnesota Based on Swedish Communities

Last March, I spent five weeks in Sweden studying eco-communities.

A report that highlights opportunities in Minnesota for sustainable communities and green building has been written based on my one-month stay in Sweden. The report, "A Tale of Green Cities: Exploring Opportunities for Minnesota through the Natural Step Process and Sustainable Communities in Sweden", was sponsored by the Blandin Foundation and was released today by Dovetail Partners in their e-newsletter. Click here to download the report.

I'm really excited by the opportunities for Minnesota presented in the report. If you or your community has any interest or questions, or if you have any comments based on the report, I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Promoting a LEED building in the right way

I just received a very common and important question about how to promote a LEED building in the right way. Here are some helpful tips:

1. Logo use. The USGBC has specific guidelines on how their product can and cannot be used. Click here for their specific logo guidelines.

2. Promotional materials. Another common question is if there are specific guidelines to materials that are used for promotion. As far as I know, the USGBC does not have any requirements. However, this is always one way to stay in line with (and set yourself apart from) the competition. Using certified paper products, such as FSC or SFI, is growing more common. One note: a printing company needs to be chain-of-custody certified themselves in order to use the FSC logo properly. Click here to search a list of vendors that are chain-of-custody certified or sell certified wood products. If you find a company that carries certified forest products, chances are good that they'll also have soy ink, post-consumer recycled-content paper, and a myriad of other green paper options.

3. Language. There is a huge difference between a project that is registered and awaiting certification and one that has fully achieved certification. There are also some major points to be aware of when talking about environmental claims. The Real Life LEED blog covers these topics greatly in this post. Not only is it important to be aware of the differences for legal reasons, but also because consumers are more green-savvy than ever before.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Greening your existing home in Minnesota

The summer is almost over, and now is a great time to be making those energy improvements to your home! One great resource in Minnesota is the Neighborhood Energy Consortium. They can help you test your home's energy efficiency and also find energy loans, rebates and tax incentives to pay for improvements.

They also offer a great online tool which takes you room by room of a house, focusing on ways to reduce energy use without making huge improvements. Click here for the ENERGYSTAR @ Home Tool.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

SFI vs. FSC vs. all the others

In the green building standards world, sustainable forest certification has been a big debate. The USGBC's LEED program only recognizes FSC, NAHB's National Green Building Standard recognizes all forest certification programs, and Minnesota GreenStar requires that any wood not from Canada or the USA is FSC-certified. So who is right? And as a consumer does it really make a difference which product I choose?

Dovetail Partners, a non-profit organization focusing on accurate non-biased environmental information, has written a few articles that outline the differences and similarities between the third-party certified sustainable forestry standards.

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) - summary
FSC - update
FSC and ATFS (American Tree Farm System) - update
PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certficiation schemes) - summary
SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) - summary
SFI - update*
CSA (Canadian Standards Association) - summary
FSC & SFI report - appendix compares many forest certification programs

(*some updates included that SFI became a 3rd party Chain-of-Custody standard, that its stakeholders and board include affiliates beyond industry, and that social issues are addressed)
The truth is, when choosing between certification programs, it depends on what is important to you. But nit-picking through the details may not get you anywhere. Like green building programs, sustainable forest standards often have prerequisites and then need to meet a certain number of points to become certified. But just because one program has specific indicators does not mean that the certified forest fits all of those indicators, just like not all LEED buildings have a green roof even though it's an option in the program.

So - what to do? First, remember that if a forest is going through a third-party certified program, it means that the forest managers are dedicated on some level to sustainability. Secondly, forest in the US and Canada are in general fairly well-managed, so issues of social responsibility are not as pressing (although always important) as in some third-world countries (which is why it's a good idea for imported wood to be Chain-of-Custody certified). Third, choosing local is very important - FSC, SFI, CSA, and ATFS are also all programs local to Minnesota and the United States and/or Canada. Fourth, clear-cutting is not always bad (see Dovetail's report on why clear-cutting is necessary in some places).

And finally - wood itself is a good product. It is one of the most sustainable building materials we have. It is renewable and natural and durable, and if it's local it's helping nearby communities as well. So regardless of what certification program you choose, by choosing wood, you've made a good choice.

If you have more questions on wood certification, please contact me.

Click here to see more of Dovetail's reports on forest certification, sustainable materials, responsible consumption, and green building.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Learn about LEED Regional Priority Credits

One of the changes in the new LEEDv3 system is the addition of Regional Priority Credits (RPCs). RPCs are already-existing LEED credits that are selected as most environmentally important to a specific zip code. One additional point can be earned for meeting a RPC (in addition to its regular points), for up to four points out of the six possible per location. Search the Minnesota Regional Priority Credits by zip code here.

Still curious about RPCs in Minnesota? The Mississippi Headwaters Chapter of the USGBC is hosting a seminar to explain LEED's new regionalization points and criteria. It will cover Minnesota's regionalized points and their specific focus on environmental and habitation zones. The event will be held at Center for Changing Lives, 2400 Park Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55404, July 21st from 11:30am-1:00pm as the USGBC's local quarterly chapter update.

Registration closes soon - register for this event here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Zero Energy Homes on Display in Minnesota

In Sweden, there was a lot of talk about zero-energy (and even energy-producing!) homes. But you don't have to travel overseas to learn what exactly a zero energy house looks like - in August and September two eco-friendly homes will be viewable right here in Minnesota.
2008 Eco Experience at the Minnesota State Fair, photo by Charles Bevier
One of the homes will be featured in the Progress Center at the fourth annual Eco Experience at the Minnesota State Fair August 27-September 7, 2009. The Eco Experience is put on by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and focuses on holistic sustainable living. The Eco Home is currently under construction and has a goal of being carbon-neutral. Some of the features include solar panels, stormwater management, geothermal heating and cooling, electric appliances, and a carport instead of a garage. Although the home will be 4-bedrooms and 2,200 sq.ft. and have a bigger footprint than previous years, it is being designed to be net-zero energy based on "typical" living practices and should fit on a typical 50' city lot. Besides the Eco Home, the Eco Experience will also display other green products and services, showcase the U of M's solar car that recently won a 850 mile race, and offer local healthy food options such as caprese salad on a stick!

Winner of 2007 Solar Decathlon, Technische Universität Darmstadt

The Solar Decathlon ICON House will be on display in August. The ICON house is being designed, engineered, and constructed by the University of Minnesota's Solar Decathlon Team to be Zero Energy and completely powered by the sun. It is currently under construction at the ReUse Center and was designed with architectural features that blend easily into a residential neighborhood. It is being designed using a whole systems design approach, life-cycle focused sustainability, and with the Minnesota climate in mind - see some of the solar components and design aspects here. In October, the ICON house will compete against 19 other Decathlon Teams in Washington, DC for the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar house. Images and plans of the house will be on display at the University of Minnesota's Exhibit at the State Fair on Dan Patch Avenue and Underwood street August 30th and 31st. The house will be on display at the East Bank of the University of Minnesota in August and near the Equine Center on the Saint Paul campus during the State Fair. Buses to the Equine Center and the Eco Experience are currently being arranged. Stay tuned for further updates!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Green Treated Lumber

I recently received an inquiry involving a viewer's concern over a home improvement show that built a children's play area/retaining wall using green treated lumber. The question was "what potential health hazards are there in using green treated lumber?"

While I am not an expert on this by any means, I found these links very helpful (provided to me by colleague Dr. Jim Bowyer). I hope they help.

What's In That Pressure Treated Wood?

CCA-Treated Wood for Residential Use

Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA): Questions & Answers: What You Need to Know About Wood Pressure Treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Greening the Heartland comes to Minneapolis in 2010

Greening the Heartland is coming in Minneapolis in 2010!

Greening the Heartland 2009 just wrapped up in Detroit (presentations are available online here), and now the Mississippi Headwaters Chapter and Minnesota Green Communities have begun planning for hosting the 7th annual conference in Minneapolis in 2010. Greening the Heartland is a regional green building conference centered around 14 chapters in the USGBC's "Heartland" Region. The conference typically promotes sustainable design and construction strategies in both private and public sectors, and has a regional and affordability focus. Greening the Heartland is intimate in scale (in comparison to a larger conference like Greenbuild) and offers continuing education credits for many programs.

The planning committee is open to suggestions - visit their blog here or leave a comment on this post if you have any ideas to help this be a great event!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Passing the new LEED® AP Test - Update

Taking the LEED® AP test can be very grueling. It requires hours of studying, memorization, and total concentration on test day. And now, things have changed a little bit with the new exam. Besides looking at the LEED v3 Standard, and what has changed from earlier versions of the standard, here are a few things about taking the test to keep in mind:

Formulas. Do more than just memorization. Make sure you know how to apply the glazing factor formula to building design and the LEED credit, for example.
Credit responsibility. I thought this would be common sense so I didn’t study it much. Make sure to know who signs off on a credit, and remember that it is different for each one.
Credit relationships. Understand how changing stormwater management design may affect heat island affect, for example. A lot of questions focus on the integrated systems approach to design.
Prerequisites and the different ASHRAE standards. Know these inside and out!
The LEED registration process. If you can, try to register a project online before taking the test. It really helps in understanding how the registration process works.

There are many helpful resources for test preparation. Here are a few:

Study Groups. Contact members of your local USGBC chapter and form a study group. For Minnesota, it’s here.
LEED NC v2.2 Flashcards. These are great, and well worth the $35. If you're taking the new version of the exam, these will be helpful but there are some changes to be aware of. Making your own flashcards also really helps. If you're in a study group, you can quiz each other.
LEEP AP Candidate Handbook 2. This is for the new LEED AP system. Very important information about registration, scheduling, exam preparation, test-day procedures, and more
Project Certification Resources. For the new exam, this includes a short online demo of LEED v3, Credit Interpretation Rulings, and more.
LEED Practices Tests. Stay tuned for LEED v3 tests to be included once test exams under the new system have begun.

For information on taking the old version of the LEED exam, click here.

More updates to the LEED® AP exam

As you know, the LEED® AP exam has changed. Here some updates. Please note that what was once announced to be the three tiers of LEED® AP, LEED® AP+, and LEED® Fellow has now changed to LEED® Green Associate, LEED® AP, and LEED® Fellow.

***The registration deadline for taking the test under the current LEED® standards has now passed. Exams must be taken no later than June 30, 2009 for the old system. Candidates are encouraged to take the exam as soon as possible as testing facilities are limited.***

® Green Associate
The process for the new system is already underway. Applications and the handbook for the LEED® Green Associate are now available.

® AP

The LEED® for New Construction exam credential will be replaced by the LEED® AP Building Design + Construction (BD+C) credential. This track tests knowledge of LEED® for New Commercial Construction and Major Renovations Rating System v2.2 and its application in practice. The cost of the exam is $300 for USGBC Members and $400 for non-members. Additional discounts may apply if your company is a member of the USGBC.

The LEED® for Commercial Interiors exam will be replaced by the LEED® AP Interior Design + Construction (ID+C) credential. This track will test knowledge of the LEED® for Commercial Interiors Rating System v2.0 and its application in practice.

The LEED® AP+ Homes track and Operations + Maintenance track examinations are currently available for application by logging into the GBCI website. Others will be available summer of 2009 or in 2010.

® AP Fellow
LEED® AP Fellow is still under development. If you’d like to provide input, click here!

Study resources

Resources to study for the new exams are currently underway. In the meantime, some of the old tips for passing the last version of the exam can still be helpful in preparing.

For more information on the new LEED® Accreditation, visit GBCI or email

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bio-energy Education

I recently spent five weeks in Sweden studying sustainable eco-communities. Not only was I impressed with strategies they have already implemented, but their level of education is amazing as well. One green conference that is coming up in 2009 is worth mentioning, if you're going to be in western Sweden: The International Bioenergy Days, September 28-30.

This year the conference will cover three main topics in bio-energy:
-Biofuels for Vehicles
-Bioenergy for Heating and Cooling
-Politics and Society

If you would be interested in seeing these topics covered here in Minnesota, let me know by leaving a comment below; I'm currently planning some educational events around the state.

Stay tuned for a summary of things that I learned from Sweden, and how they could be implemented in communities right here in Minnesota.

Renewable Energy Businesses in Minnesota

Renewable energy is a hot topic in all areas. Here is a link that I've recently found helpful in finding local renewable energy options, in terms of locally manufactured, locally installed, and locally available funding: Renewable Energy Businesses in Minnesota. I hope this, in combination with some available renewable energy tax credits, can help bring renewable energy to your project!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Assistance for home energy improvements

Recent changes to federal tax credits mean that thankfully there is a little money and a variety of options (including geothermal, biomass, and solar hot water) for making your home more energy efficient - for both homeowner and builders. Follow this link to the Energy Star website to find more.

For incentives related directly to Minnesota, visit the DSIRE website.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Renewable heating in Strömstad, Sweden

This map demonstrates renewable energy in Strömstad - over 50% of homes use some sort of heat pump.
Like in the US, many people in Sweden have been upgrading their heating systems in some way. In the town of Strömstad, for example, converting to a heat pump is economical just after a few years and saves from between 1/3 to 2/3 in heating costs (if not more). Strömstad was recently awarded the “heat pump city” award for the most heat pumps per capita. Even the hospital in Strömstad uses a heat pump, taking heat from the nearby sea. The city is a very good place to do ground source heat pumps because the terrain consists mostly of solid granite, which is very easy to drill through and obtain heat from.

The EkoPark in Strömstad demonstrates how heat pumps work
Air-to-air exchangers are also very popular here if ground source or geothermal heat pumps are not an option. Many people in this area also choose to upgrade their electric heating system by installing a wood pellet stove because it’s less expensive and better for the environment (the wood can be obtained locally). A few homes use solar as well, and two small individual wind turbines also exist in the city for individual buildings.

An air-to-air exchanger (top left) in a Swedish home
The Strömstad municipality addresses the environment for new construction as well. Because the ground consists mostly of granite, there is some concern about radon in the area, and new homes must be built with potential radon mitigation systems. Strömstad is also working toward maximum energy-efficiency of new buildings with a goal of newly constructed buildings meeting Passivhus standards.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Education is a key to successful eco-communities in Sweden

At EkoPark, we learned that transporting by train is much more energy efficient (almost 1000 times more!) than by car, bus, or truck.
I have noticed in Sweden is that environmental education is everywhere. In Göteborg we toured the EcoCentrum, and in Strömstad we toured the EkoPark. Both are year-round educational facilities that help people understand what the local community is doing and educate about environmental issues on multiple levels – recycling, energy, transportation, etc. I think it’s a combination of the permanent visibility of these centers and the government financial support (which Swedes understand is their own money from their taxes) that makes these popular visiting places. I also see that the desire to continually improve the environment in innovative ways makes these places fun and interesting.
How far does your food or building materials travel? We learned at Ekocentrum.
In all community projects we've visited, educating the public has created the most successful projects. We should be sure to always include environmental education as part of our "green" efforts, both before and after our projects our finished!
Educating the public was a key step to promoting both economic development and preserving cultural heritage of 3,000 year old rock carvings in the Tanum area. Picture taken at the Vitlycke Museet.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How some swedish communities reduce pollution and promote fuel efficiency

Just a quick note – The Swedes are really interested in fuel efficiency and reducing pollution from vehicles. In addition to driving cars and buses fueled with bio gas, in some cities you may receive a fine for leaving your car idling for more than one minute. This is usually marked with a sign as you enter a city. Many Swedish cities use roundabouts which not only promote safety but also prevent stopping in traffic for too long. Companies with delivery vehicles will often offer training to their employees on how to drive in order to conserve fuel.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Swedish communities using garbage for energy Part 2 - the red bags

Previously I posted about the green bag plant. The story of the red bags is also interesting.

The red bags
The newly constructed Uddevalla Energi plant

We visited the Uddevalla Energi plant in Uddevalla, Sweden, where some of the red bags are sent to. The red bags theoretically contain items that are not organic, hazardous, electronic, recyclable, and that can be burned. Some acceptable examples of items might include diapers, clothing, and textiles. This actually includes some plastics, and the bags themselves are also burned.
The giant claw that feeds waste into the furnace. The furnace runs 24 hours a day.
Uddevalla was one of the first communities in Sweden to begin using district heating systems. The system was installed in 1965 and since 1985, when the biomass energy plant was built, using renewable energy has been part of Uddevalla’s heating system. The new waste incineration plant opened in August 2008 and is used in conjunction with the biomass plant to supply almost 100% of the city’s heat as well as provide electricity to the main grid. Fifty percent of electricity from the plant is used in Uddevalla and the other half is used in Trollhättan, a neighboring community. Employee vehicles and collection trucks run on biogas, and the electricity from the plant is used to power the plant and its facilities.

Forget that you might think trash is dirty - this waste burning facility was very clean!

While the plant was very clean, the burning of trash itself is a dirty process, and the Uddevalla Energi plant has state-of-the-art facilities to ensure clean air and clean water are produced from the process. The system itself loses very little energy by collecting and recycling steam and using it for both heat in the plant and to the district heating system. Slag produced at the plant is used in road construction. In fact, the only actually by-product from this plant is a type of sludge, and leave it to the Swedes to even find a use for that! The sludge is sent to an island in Norway that was once mined for gypsum and now needs to be recovered for environmental reasons. The sludge, when mixed with a certain Norwegian paint waste, creates the perfect pH to help restore this island back to more normal conditions.

An interesting trash fact – Sweden’s economy has been declining, which means that people are producing less trash. In order to keep up with the demand for energy, some waste burning facilities in Sweden have been importing trash from other countries.

One more interesting trash fact – Many Swedes are adamant about disposing of their old and unused medicine properly. Many pharmacies provide medicine recycling bags so that chemicals don’t end up in the soil or water supply. The bags can be returned to the pharmacy, who will dispose of them properly. These recycling programs exist for some pharmacies in the US but many people don’t know about them or use them, so if you don’t know, be sure to ask.

Swedish communities using garbage for energy Part 1 - the green bags

One man’s trash really is another man’s treasure – One thing that has really impressed me about Swedish communities is how they deal with their trash. In one area of Sweden where we stayed, we noticed that in addition to separating items for recycling, there were also red and green plastic waste bags in all of the homes. In the green bags you were to put organic material, and in the red bags should contain any waste that can burn that wouldn’t be recycled. Larger items or non-burnable items are taken to a separate waste facility in town, and recyclable materials are dropped off at recycling centers usually located in grocery store parking lots.

So what actually happens to the red and green bags? We were lucky enough to find out!!

The green bags
We visited Ragn-Sells Heljestorp AB, aka “the green bag plant” in Vänersborg. The plant has been running for 9 years, and with 2,000 trucks, it is the largest waste handling company in Sweden. At the plant, the red and green bags are separated, and the matter from the green bags is converted into biogas (in compress air form) that is used to fuel automobiles. The red bags are transported to other facilities to be burned for energy (we also visited a “red bag” plant, which I’ll talk about later. Many Swedish communities burn waste for energy but Ragn-Sells Heljestrop AB is the only one that is producing biogas from their waste in this particular way. The plant’s employees and trucks even use the biogas to fuel their own vehicles! The biogas can be used in most cars that run on natural gas. Many local cities use biogas for their buses as well. In Sweden there is no tax on cars if they run on biogas (including tolls, registration fees, etc.).

Sorting the green and the red bags
The plant receives on average 70,000 total bags a day – 25,000 of which are green bags. Each green bag creates enough biogas to drive a car for 2.5 km, and last year the plant produced as much biogas as the petrol equivalent of 1.2 million liters. In addition to the biogas, the plant also creates a liquid fertilizer that is certified by the EU to be eco-friendly.

The bags arrive to the plant to be sorted
In order to implement this program successfully, a lot of education to the public was needed. A giant booklet for every home in the area, television information, and demonstrations helped explain what needed to go in the red and green bags. Ten years ago, the program began with175 users; now 200,000 people participate. About 90% of the time, the products in the green bags, which carry the organic material (“anything that you put in your mouth” as they say) are correctly separated.
The bags are ripped open to uncover their contents and feed them into the biogas converter.
One thing I really found interesting is that in Sweden, product manufacturers are responsible for what happens to their packaging. This has created an incentive in the country to use packaging that can be recycled or burned.

Stay tuned for information about the “red bag plant”.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lessons from a sustainable farm in Sweden

Two days ago we arrived at Frugården, a farm located on the peninsula of Vänersnäs in lake Vänern, about 25 km from Vänersborg, Sweden. Frugården dates back to year 1550, and the large manor built in 1760 still exists today even after a fire in 1963. Frugården itself has 1,000 hectares of forest and 250 hectares of farmland and also contains 20 separate homes that are rented out. While the farm produces mainly forest products it also produces rapeseed and grain. One thing we are currently experiencing in Sweden is a new law that 10% of all farmland must be allowed to be fallow because of a food surplus (the farmers are paid for the unused land), and it is no exception at Frugården.
Wood furnace for main house at Frugården
The forests at Frugården are sustainably managed according to both FSC and PEFC standards. Frederick, the owner, says that he gets a better price for wood that is certified, and that his lands have always been managed with a forest management plan. The wood products that Frugården produces are some lumber but mainly pulp wood and wood for heating. Frederick has currently purchased a wood chipper in order to find a use for some of the branches leftover from milling oak lumber. He plans to chip the wood into fine flakes because they burn better than wood pellets and will be able to be fed automatically into burners he has at the farm. He will use the flakes to heat the farm but plans to sell them as well.
Wood chipper
Wood is a big heating source at Frugården as most of the 20 rental homes on the property contain wood burning stoves. The large manor is heated by a wood-fueled hot water heating system. The heating system contains 3,500 L of hot water which is piped into and out of the house, and is controlled by an electronic system. The wood furnace is located in a small building behind the manor, and is fed twice daily. In the summer the furnace is fed once a week for hot water use in the house. One of the other homes on the property uses an air-to-air exchanger in addition to a wood furnace to maximize the energy efficiency. Frederick has had such success with this method of heating that he has already laid piping to connect the main hot water heating system from the manor to another house located nearby, and will finish the installation this summer. He estimates that using wood in Sweden is 10% of the cost of using gas heating.
One of the many homes heated by wood at the farm
Frederick has also been trying to install wind turbines at Frugården as well. Located so close to the water, it would have a lot of wind potential, but because it is located with views of the lake, some community members are suggesting alternative places to have wind power. There are already currently four wind turbines located at one end of the peninsula by another farmer.
Wind turbines on the Vänersnäs peninsula
I was told that their barns are all painted red because the paint contains iron oxide that actually preserves the wood and lasts for a long time. Almost all homes on the countryside are painted red or yellow, and in all places the siding is wood. The wood siding here in Sweden is also installed up and down, which also preserves the wood because the rain runs down it instead of collecting it like it does on the style of siding we have in the US.
Red paint preserves the wood, as well as the long vertical siding (rather than horizontal)

I was fortunate enough to stay with Frederick and Catarina at Frugården while I was in this part of Sweden for a few days. In addition to using their own wood to heat their homes, they also grow most of their own food and buy fish from a local fisherman that also rents at Frugården. They also rent their land to hunters and can purchase meat from them if they’d like. They have a compost bin and also collect wine bottles to be crushed to use in making roads along the farm. Ash from the wood burning furnace is added to the compost as well. Inside the main house all of the bathrooms have dual-flush toilets and in-floor heating. The house has four wood-burning fireplaces. One person on the peninsula has bees and makes honey, and I was lucky enough to receive some as a gift while I was here!

All sustainable aspects at Frugården are sustainable are done with the limited resources they have – they live on a peninsula but really treat it like an island. We all need to remember that within our own community island we can find everything we really need to be sustainable, and don’t need to import materials, foods, or other resources in order to be sustainable.