A Preview to Tropical Green

The upcoming conference, Tropical Green (February 9-10, 2006, Miami, Florida), with its focus on the many complex issues unique to designing and building in hot and humid regions, provides an opportunity to introduce you to our expert speakers and their varied green activities. To this end, Metropolis editor in chief, Susan S. Szenasy, e-mailed her questions to speaker Subrato Chandra, Ph.D., Project Director, Building America Industrialized Housing Partnership, Florida Solar Energy Center(FSEC), University of Central Florida in Cocoa. In the true collaborative spirit of the sustainability movement, what came back were answers from several experts, showing that Dr. Chandra relies on his skilled team. We include here answers from Jennifer Szaro, Senior Energy Analyst, Photovoltaics and Distributed Generation Division, FSEC; Rob Vieira, Director, Buildings Research, FSEC; and Colleen Kettles, Executive Director, Florida Solar Energy Research and Education Foundation. If some answers reflect slight disagreements, they simply prove that new research and its interpretation may, sometimes, yield somewhat different conclusions. If you have knowledge to share in the area of solar energy as it relates to the tropics, we hope you will do so.

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Susan S. Szenasy: This year the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) won the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s Innovation award for SunSmart School Programs. Could you talk about the importance of that program as an energy saving effort as well as a pedagogical tool?

Colleen Kettles: The program serves as a demonstration of solar technology and an educational tool for students and teachers. In the larger scheme of things, the amount of energy produced by the PV system vs. the schools’ energy bills is negligible. But the importance of introducing the technology to tomorrow’s leaders and consumers (students) and incorporating solar energy into the curriculum at every level cannot be overstated.

Consumer awareness is critical to the adoption of new energy technologies. The next round of funding for the program will include not only demonstrations (small scale systems), but also larger systems on schools that will be used for shelters after hurricanes and other disasters.

On a more practical note, there is little use of solar water-heating devices on schools, a technology that is very cost effective, will reap real energy savings, and is required by state law, where “economically feasible,” as defined by the Department of Education.

Jennifer Szaro: The amount of energy that the program’s systems save annually for the schools is 120,983,265 KWH, making it extremely valuable as an energy saving measure for the state, as well as for county educational facilities. It also allows these educational institutions to act as an example for the local community.

Future work for this program will focus on using solar on schools thatserve as emergency shelters and the training of emergency facility personnel that would accompany these installations.

SSS: Your organization’s work with Florida schools may be revelatory of the next generation’s ideas about clean energy and health, and other sustainability issues. Do you see encouraging signs that tomorrow’s citizens will care more about the environment than the politically active generation of today? If your answer is negative, we’d like to know that too.

Kettles: We have missed turning two generations of children into energy advocates by ignoring the lessons of the first energy crisis in the 1970s. As the song goes, “Tomorrow, tomorrow,… but tomorrow never comes”.

Szaro: I have noticed a definite interest from students of all grade levels (including university students) in sustainability issues. Most students I’ve met through this program have been eager to learn about solar and what they can do to improve the environment they live in. I see a lot of similarities to the process that the recycling movement experienced in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Energy has become such a visible topic in the news and a common topic of daily conversation that students are drawn to it. Most have heard thatfossil fuels are finite resources. Many question their parents’ choices regarding energy usage in the home and for transportation (such as SUVs)given the surge in gasoline prices. This program, through its educational activities,gives them the opportunity to understand what their options are for future energy sources and empowers them. It’s interesting to see them put two and two together concerning the impacts of energy use on climate. I am encouraged by what I am hearing and seeing in this regard.

SSS: As of this date there are reportedly 29 SunSmart schools in the program. Are these schools spread evenly all over the state of Florida or are there regions where energy savings/solar power programs meet with more enthusiasm than others? If yes, what’s your assessment of why this is? If not, could you explain.

Szaro: For the most part these sites are geographically diverse,which was one of the program’s primary objectives, though some regions received less attention than others, due to logistical and policy-related obstacles. This was the case in Dade County, where identifying sites and program partners proved to be difficult.

We did see a tendency in some regions toward greater interest in the use of solar as an educational tool and as a facilities acquisition. Places such as Orange County in the Orlando area seemed to have more upper-management involvement and support for the program, which resulted in a greater number of systems being installed here. The Orange County Public Schools are even pursuing “green tags” for the energy produced by their systems and has developed a model operation and maintenance program that allows them to keep tabs on the condition and performance of the systems.

Champions from the local utilities, local government and within the schools themselves seem to make the difference in a region’s success in obtaining funds for solar projects.

SSS: It seems like the SunSmart program is a great teaching tool in the sciences and mathematics. How does this instruction work? Could you cite an interesting example or two?

Szaro: The curriculum development portion of the program met a very crucial need for educational materials and methods that allow teachers to blend hands-on, real-world learning experiences with Florida’s required teaching standards. Lesson plans directly reference each teaching standard to allow educators to pull directly from these materials to meet the state’s educational goals for K-12 students.

The six teacher training workshops held for K-12 students allowed teachers the opportunity to become more comfortable with the educational tools developed through the program.

The one week installer workshops offered to vocational schools and universities also allowed ample opportunity for higher level educators to gain a better understanding of the solar design and installation process as well as the physics behind the technology.

The PV systems also provide an on-site laboratory for students to learn more about solar power and the benefits of energy conservation. Each installed system includes monitoring technology that collects weather and system performance data,and allows students and the public to view collected data over the internet at Energy Whiz.

SSS: 2005 is the 30th anniversary of the FSEC; its founding seems to correlate with the 1970s oil shortages when Americans—lined up for miles at the gas pumps—realized that we will have to find alternate sources of energy if our famous quality of life is to prevail. Have we learned enough about alternate sources of power in the last 30 years to make that early dream a reality in the next five years?

Kettles: We have all the knowledge we need to make the dream a reality. What we are lacking is a clear vision and plan of action that will pinch us awake from the slumber that keeps it just a dream. Hopefully, with the Governor’s Executive Order to develop a comprehensive energy plan, we will finally take the necessary steps to make the dream come true.

Rob Vieira: Unfortunately interest in energy efficiency and renewable sources fluctuates with prices. Until prices will be seen as constantly rising, it is unlikely that enough financial resources will be committed to realize that dream.

We need to improve designs of buildings, transportation systems, and appliances to reduce their need for energy. We need to continue to improve efficiencies.

We need control systems that will automatically control systems to conserve energy.Once we accomplish all these measures—design, efficiency, and conservation— then we may be able to afford to provide the remaining resource use largely through renewables. We are always looking for materials that will reduce resource use and costof manufacturing renewable energy equipment.

SSS: Are there any Florida laws or building codes that stand in the way of using plentiful local resources like the sun and the wind?

Kettles: There are barriers, but they can be overcome. For example, wind loading requirements are burdensome to solar manufacturers, but necessary to protect the consumer. Florida has a solar rights law (Section 163.04, FS) that prohibits community associations from restricting the use of solar energy on buildings. There are many laws in Florida that are designed to encourage the use of solar, but have failed in the implementation phase and actually have had no positive impact on the use of solar, and in some cases, discourage it.

SSS: What about homebuilders , are they becoming interested in building energy efficient houses?

Chandra: This is indeed one of the bright spots in Florida. As you know, the Florida housing market is red hot and you can sell anything. Despite that we see homebuilders and factory builders interested in building energy efficient and green houses. They have discovered that high performance houses have fewer callbacks and greater marketing appeal as homeowners are happy with their comfortable house with low utility bills. Through the U.S. Department of Energy sponsored Building America program we are working with over two dozen site and factory builders in Florida and more throughout the U.S. providing them with technical assistance.

SSS: Has the University of Central Florida, FSEC’s home base, incorporated some of your program’s findings about alternate, clean energy harvesting? If yes, please give some examples. If no, why do you think that is?

Vieira: The University has implemented some strategies to reduce energy use on campus. They have installed a green roof on a new student union addition and are measuring its performance for energy and storm water reduction.We are currently exploring an accelerated campus-wide process for reducing resource use on campus.

For more information on Tropical Green, click here.
To join us at the conference, register here.

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