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Going for Green

New county and state initiatives aim to protect environment.

Green is in.

Several initiatives in Maryland and Montgomery County that either have or will go into effect in the near future are promoting the use of alternative energies and building techniques to minimize energy consumption and pollution. These plans encourage the consumption of renewable energies for citizens, businesses and governments.

Such environmentally friendly tactics are considered "green," while coal-burning energy and older, inefficient building techniques are often called "brown." Driven by growing concern in the scientific community about global warming and an increasing national concern about the country’s dependence on foreign oil, the trend of switching to green is picking up speed throughout Maryland and Montgomery County.

IN AUGUST Guy and Dana Semmes had solar panels and a solar water heating system installed on the roof of their home on Glen Road in Potomac. In doing so they took advantage the Solar Energy Grant Program, state legislation that went into effect in 2005 that offers partial reimbursement to residents and companies that choose to install solar electricity systems in their homes or businesses.

They also plan to take advantage of a federal program that offers a tax credit for installation costs.

"It’s good for the environment and it’s good for the pocketbook," said Maryland Sen. Robert Garagiola (D-15), who helped enact the state legislation two years ago.

The Semmeses have seen the economic benefits thus far. Guy Semmes was considering buying a new car before he decided to spend that money on the solar technology he installed in his home.

"Instead of costing me a little each month," said Semmes, "the solar system pays me back a little each month. Plus it just felt right."

Their home now gets about a third of its electricity from the sun, according to Guy Semmes’ estimate, which is in line with Garagiola’s estimate that solar paneling can lower the energy bills by an average of 30 to 40 percent each year in residential homes.

"During the day we’re producing electricity through the photovoltaic [solar] panels," said Guy Semmes. "Every kilowatt we produce from there is a kilowatt we don’t use from the regular power grid, so in low-usage hours our meter will actually start to go down."

The solar panels on the roof of the Semmes’ home are made of sliced silicone crystals that collect the sun’s rays; the energy is then converted into electric current which runs to the breaker panel, explained Guy Semmes.

The solar water heater consists of large glass tubes that face the sun. Inside each tube are copper rods with aluminum fins. The aluminum fins heat up the copper tubes, whose tips heat up a liquid solution which is in turn funneled through the roof and to the water heater, according to Semmes.

"I’m just having fun with the technology aspect of it," said Semmes, who is a partner with Hopkins & Porter Construction in Potomac.

The solar technology is not the only modern aspect of the Semmeses’ home. Built in the 1960s by Guy Semmes’ uncle, the house includes several features that are coming into vogue in today’s environmentally conscious climate. For one, the house faces almost due south, exposing it to the bulk of the sun’s rays, according to Guy Semmes. The south wall of the house has many large, triple-paned windows that allow plenty of light to come in but because they are highly insulated they do not allow much heat to get out, reducing the amount of electricity needed to heat their home.

The roof of their ranch home also has a slight overhang. "During the summer when the sun is more directly overhead this keeps the sun out," said Semmes, thereby decreasing the amount of electricity needed to cool their home in the summer months.

RESIDENTS SUCH AS the Semmeses who utilize Maryland's Solar Energy Grant Program by installing solar panels on their homes will be reimbursed 20 percent of the installation costs with a $3,000 cap, according to Garagiola, while businesses receive the same 20 percent reimbursement with a $5,000 cap.

Residents and businesses alike receive 20 percent reimbursement up to $2,000 for solar water heating systems.

"I was thrilled when [the legislation creating the program] was enacted," said Garagiola. "I’d like to see the grant amounts increased."

The program received $1.5 million in its second year of funding, up from $100,000 it was given in its first year.

"We have a lot of applications pending for the current year and we’re working on making sure that that funding will be there for next year, ideally more than the $1.5 million that we have for this year," said Garagiola.

He hopes to make the program a dedicated part of the state’s budget with a minimum funding level each year. "We want to make it mainstream, so everyone is getting solar water heaters and solar panels. It makes sense economically because it saves money on your energy bill, but it makes sense environmentally too."

FOR RESIDENTS who are not quite ready to install solar technology into their homes but still want to reduce their intake of brown energy, the county has a solution. Beginning in January 2007, Montgomery County's Clean Energy Rewards Program will reward residents and businesses that switch to clean energy sources.

The county’s Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the average cost of purchasing such clean energy is roughly 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Through the Clean Energy Rewards program residents will be receive a credit of 1 cent per kWh, thereby defraying roughly 40 percent of the additional cost to consumers of clean energy. The county will refund businesses at the rate of 1.5 cents per kWh, though the plan is geared largely toward private residences.

"We really wanted to provide residents with a chance to do the right thing and to educate them at the same time on clean energy and its benefits," said Susan Kirby, a planning specialist with the Department of Envrionmental Protection and the coordinator of the Clean Energy Rewards program.

"This is a fantastic piece to the county's plan to combat climate change," said Eric Coffman, senior energy planner with the Department of Environmental Protection. "We hope it will be a model for other municipalities throughout the region and the nation."

Residents can choose from several clean energy providers and the amount of clean energy used will go into the general power grid. For instance, according to Coffman, if a residential home uses $100 of energy in a given month and is signed up with an energy provider that produces electricity from wind, $100 worth of energy will go into the power grid from that source. Because the clean energy will not come directly from the source, residents and businesses will not need to install any new equipment to receive green energy.

"It's like a bucket of water," said Coffman. "If you poke a hole in the bucket you don't know where the water is coming out from." The important thing, according to Coffman, is adding clean energy to that bucket.

"Let's face it," he said. "Electricity is the dirtiest of the fuels, it comes from burning natural gas, coal — and it's destroying the environment."

Customers will either have the clean energy credits rolled directly into their monthly bills or will receive refund checks; the manner in which that will be handled will be up to the providers, according to Coffman.

Additionally, residents will also have the opportunity to purchase what the county calls renewable energy certificates (RECs). Intended particularly for residents who live in apartment buildings where their energy bills are included in their monthly rent, these credits can be purchased to assure that clean energy in the amount designated flows into the grid.

The program was implemented as an amendment to the county's clean energy policy in March 2005, and is part of the county's larger goal of obtaining 20 percent of its energy from clean, renewable energy sources by 2011. It is open for enrollment now, according to Kirby, and will be through June of 2007 when the program will be up for renewal.

Currently there is enough funding budgeted for a couple of thousand people to take advantage of it, according to Coffman, in its first year. The program requires year-to-year funding, but Coffman said he does not anticipate the program not being funded in the future.

"Right now the current [County] Council is very supportive of this program," said Coffman, "and we expect the new council to be in favor of it as well."

COUNTY COUNCIL President George Leventhal (D-at-large) announced Monday afternoon new legislation that would encourage and require builders to meet energy efficiency standards by adding features that would both save energy and reduce pollution in commercial construction. Under the proposed plan any new County building or County-funded building larger than ten thousand square feet would have to meet green standards defined by the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System. The legislation was passed unanimously by the Council on Tuesday.

LEED standards were developed by the United States Green Building Council. According to Leventhal they identify and quantify criteria that positively impact the energy and environmental characteristics of a building, including the sustainability and transportation convenience of a site, water efficiency, energy efficiency, building materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.

Any new private non-residential or multi-family residential buildings would be required to meet slightly lower LEED standards. The effective date for the program will be one year from the time that final requirements and regulations are hammered out, according to Councilmember Nancy Floreen (D-at-large), or Sept. 1, 2008, whichever comes first.

Leventhal noted that buildings of the size that are targeted in the proposed legislation are responsible for 68 percent of electricity consumption and 48 percent of greenhouse emissions in the U.S. "If we reduce the energy consumption in these buildings we can reduce the coal that is burned the greenhouse gases that go into the atmosphere. Sometimes the public and private sectors need a gentle nudge from the government."

While meeting the LEED energy standards will initially raise the cost of construction, the amount of money saved in the long run through lower energy costs more than makes up for the up-front cost, according to Leventhal.

"The notion that building green — the green premium — is more expensive is a myth," said Jason Holstine of the Amicus Green Building Center. "It’s a learning curve, so every time you build another green building you become more efficient." Holstine added that technologies that reduce the amount of energy used are particularly relevant because national energy inflation averages increase 30 percent each year and locally Pepco’s rates have averaged a 16 percent jump each of the last three years.

Tuesday’s press conference was held in front of the Tower Building on Wootton Parkway, the first green building in the Washington Metropolitan area, according to Marnie L. Abramson, principal of The Tower Companies. The Tower Building was cited as an example of green building standards such as large, insulated windows that let in large amounts of sunlight and reduce the need for electric lighting, while not allowing the heat within the building to escape. The building also features low-flush toilets that use less water than conventional toilets, as well as an air filtration system that Abramson said is similar to the technology used on submarines.

AT TUESDAY'S press conference to promote the Green Building initiative, Leventhal stressed the importance of making the jump to cleaner, more efficient technologies.

"Our planet’s climate is changing," Leventhal said. "The icecaps keep melting, hurricanes are increasing in frequency — we know this to be the case. We know that our planet and our community is in danger. … We have ten years to reduce emissions or the effects of global warming will be irreversible."

The latest round of green initiatives that has been sponsored by the state and county may not be the last.

Legislation is pending before the County Council to provide builders with property tax credits to encourage them to take part in the Green Building initiative, according to Floreen. Final details are being worked out and the bill will be taken up by the new Council.

According to Garagiola the state legislature recently passed a bill that will require all state buildings to lower their energy consumption 10 percent by the year 2009. Garagiola also plans to sponsor legislation in the coming months that would set minimum standards for statewide consumption of biodiesel and ethanol gasolines in automobiles by the year 2009.

"You can’t wave a wand and make it all happen in one day," said Garagiola, "but you have to set targets. Often times individual states help to lead the way for the nation, and we’re hoping that Maryland can help to do that."