Bharat Patel: "If our living standards remain the same, our consumption remains the same,
we have to have something to balance it. And that can only come from
Roots of the Sustainability Movement
Technology Interview with
Bharat Patel is the
sustainability specialist at Los Angeles City College, overseeing the
implementation of the District's sustainable building policy. This policy
has led to one of the largest green building project in the US, part of a
$2.1 billion bond proposition which includes 43 LEED buildings spread over
the college district's 9 campuses (see
Patel is also senior vice president and director of sustainability at HOK
Architects, chair of the US Green Building Council's Los Angeles chapter,
a member of the Community Advisory Board at the Union Bank of California
where his priority is funding green developments. As an advisor to the
Apollo Alliance, he focuses on making the new green economy and its
attendant jobs available to all segments of society. He has traveled the
world observing and sharing information on green building practices.
You were there at the beginning of the LACCD project. How did such a
massive green building project ever get off the ground?
Indeed, I have been with the program since its inception and am one of the
longest serving members of the Build LACCD team. I've been on the job
since 2001. When I started, there were ten LEED projects in all of
America. When the [LACCD] board of trustees passed its [sustainable
building] policy, that number was suddenly quadrupled. No one else in the
world, as far as we knew, had passed such a far-reaching policy.
Early on, we were faced with an issue of education. If people don't even
know what a green building is, how do we get such a policy passed? So we
held educational forums around the nine campuses. We had presenters and
talked about the policy that we were about to put forward to the board of
trustees. Board members attended the forums.
I have to give a lot of credit to the environmental groups, for example,
the Coalition for Clean Air, the Sierra Club, Global Green. They engaged
the students. But most of all, the credit has to go to the board of
trustees, because in the final analysis they stuck their necks out big
time. That's where the credit goes.
Once the policy was passed, it was a question of implementation. Other
institutions began to copy our policy. They used the same principles, even
the same wording. The City of Los Angeles, the UC system, Pasadena,
several other cities - they all followed after 2001.
Having an actual policy in place was an important milestone?
Yes. Once you have a policy in place you can't value engineer it out when
there are budget considerations. It's very, very important. The policy has
to be in place. You can't just say it's nice to have LEED, it's our goal
to be LEED certified. It doesn't work. A real motivator was the state,
[Governor] Schwarzenegger, making all the state buildings LEED silver.
How did the specifics of the LACCD policy develop?
I wrote the sustainability policy, and then we focused on energy. We said
not only do new buildings have to be LEED Silver or at least LEED
certified, they also have to exceed local energy codes, Title 24, by 20
percent. Then we required renewable energy on every campus. That was a big
deal, because in 2001 or 2002 there weren't many photovoltaic systems, and
they were expensive. It was a very progressive thing.
So now we have the LEED buildings, we have an energy policy, we're putting
in photovoltaic systems and some wind [turbines]. Should the board of
trustees propose a bond to the voters and it passes, we'll take it all off
the grid. That's the ultimate objective. But that will take a lot more
money and a lot of effort. It won't be done in one fell swoop, but in
How long will take to reach your energy goals?
If the voters pass the bond proposed by the board of trustees, we'll be
totally off the grid in about six or seven years. Some colleges, like East
Los Angeles College, that didn't have money set aside for large systems,
have opted for power purchase agreements. The federal government at the
moment offers a tax incentive for 30 percent [of the cost of a PV system].
They also offer rapid depreciation of 20 percent. So now the cost is cut
in half. Then you've got state incentives and everything else. These
federal incentives are tax- based, so LACCD doesn't pay any tax.
The mechanism they are using is called a PPA, a power purchase agreement.
A third party comes in, which in this case is Chevron. They design, build,
own and operate the photovoltaic farm going into East LA College, and they
sell the electricity generated back to the college at a rate that is fixed
for 20 years. Now there's a huge reduction for the college. At East LA I
think they'll pay 13.5 cents a kilowatt hour. And what they were paying
with all the loaded rates and everything else was something like 21 cents
per kilowatt hour.
All the big players are doing this – Chevron, Honeywell, Siemens. It's not
only good for the planet, now we're moving to a new era in which
sustainability actually makes good business sense.
What are some of the challenges you face?
There are 70 new projects going [from buildings to parking structures and
others]. LEED criteria, at the moment, only address one building at a
time. If you have a PV system shared among all the buildings, and LEED
only addresses one building, you have to have photovoltaics on each
building. We've got a situation where a lot of these arrays are on parking
structures. They are a shared resource among several buildings, so we have
to be able to manage how you capture those points.
The other issue we face is education. When we bid a job it's awarded to
the lowest bidder. When you get the lowest bid, you may find that the
contractor is not really focused on LEED or anything else, or perhaps has
never done a LEED building. If we could pre-approve contractors, it could
make it a smoother process. Also, we want to attract small contractors; we
want to help the community. So we have a huge educational component. I
have been teaching sustainable design at UCLA for approximately 18 years,
so it's a pleasure for me to teach contractors, staff and construction
staff about the LEED process. It's a very important aspect of our work
What are the benefits of this project to the community or to the
There are two or three aspects. First, the policy has now been duplicated
many times. Second, we're doing innovation. For example, we're using high
volume fly ash, which replaces a component of cement. Cement contributes 8
to 9 percent of the CO2 emissions in the world; fly ash is what comes out
as a waste product of coal-fired power stations. So you're using the waste
of one process as a food for the other and that can be duplicated by other
people. Being the first ones to do all this on a mass scale, we've been
giving out knowledge.
What is even more important, or at least as important, is the local
perspective. You've got a student coming into a LEED building at LACCD,
and he or she is just as important as sharing our knowledge around the
country and the world. We are putting large kiosks in these buildings.
They are actually developed by students, interns. They are fascinating,
beautifully done. A student or instructor can see the components and what
makes the building sustainable, and they go through every stage. When they
walk through the building, it's a teaching tool. They go into the men's
room and they've got a waterless urinal where we're saving something like
40,000 gallons of water a year. They see a recycled ceiling, and
everything else. All have little signs with information. Every building is
a living, learning thing. That's what it's about.
You've done a lot of traveling. How does the US compare with other
countries when it comes to sustainability?
When I represented California at the United Nations [United
Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali],
it was very strange. I met many of the delegates that represented the 192
countries in attendance there. When I was introduced, I shook their hands
and they said, "Oh, you're from California. Fantastic! You're our friends,
right?" Around the world, California is treated as a different country
from the rest of America. California regulations and [mandates that]
Schwarzenegger has passed far exceed any Kyoto Protocol. California is
leading the world in climate policy. Ours are far better than regulations
currently in place in England or anywhere else in the world. Most people
[here] have a different perspective. They think we're so far behind and
that Europe is far ahead, but the policies we have in place are way ahead.
From your perspective as a delegate to the UN Conference and a leader
in sustainable architecture, do you see the growth in green tech as a
lasting phenomena? Or is it another dot-com spiral?
We're in a new era where innovation is key. Innovation has always come to
our rescue. America has always excelled in it; we're not good, we're
brilliant at it. I deal with a lot of venture capitalists, and there's
more money being brought into the green movement in California than into
software and hardware combined. There's billions of dollars being
invested. Venture capital holds itself where there's innovation, and
innovation drives California.
That's why it's not likened to the dot-com spiral of boom and bust,
because the sustainable movement has very deep roots. It's got deep roots
both here and around the world, whereas the dot-com was a very fragile
economy and there was a great deal of hype created around it, and thus it
didn't have a very stable foundation. Sustainability has spread its roots
across the entire economy and goes to the heart of making lifestyle
changes. People are rethinking and shaping their lives in a fundamentally
California is the leader in this and will lead the rest of the nation.
There is no doubt in my mind that the United States of America will be the
world leader, not in terms of sacrifice, but in how we will innovate our
way out of the issues presented to us as a result of climate change. We
will take pride in the new jobs we will create worldwide through
innovation – jobs of a higher caliber that will pay well and thus lift
people upward and many out of poverty.
In the last five years the solar market has grown 40 percent every year.
The wind energy market has doubled in the last couple of years. So you're
looking at industries that are in their infancy, but doubling and
tripling. These are the industries of the future. It's always hype where
there's money involved, but these are not going to go away. That's simply
because we're competing with a diminishing resource. Oil has reached over
$100 a barrel; we have something explosive [renewable energy] competing
with something which is diminishing [fossil fuels]. So if you look at it
from that perspective, it's not hype.
If our living standards remain the same, our consumption remains the same,
we have to have something to balance it. And that can only come from
What do you think the energy landscape will look like in another fifty
You can look at it from two perspectives: You can be isolationist, where
you produce your own power, you keep your own power and any excess you can
give, or sell, to the grid.
But let's suppose you have a system where the sun never sets. That's a
fundamental thing; the sun is always shining somewhere in the world. What
if we put PV systems at 35 degrees north and south of the equator, a band
right around the world? From the U.S. to Canada we've got a grid system,
we're connected. We're connected to Alaska. We're only 30 miles or so away
from Russia over the Behring Straits, so the grid can jump over easily to
Russia. That opens the whole of Russia to Europe. It's not really such a
big deal. We've put cables under the Atlantic, which is thousands of
miles. You grid from Alaska, and that releases Russia and Europe. Italy,
France and mostly all of Europe are all gridded anyway. Then you hop from
the Straits of Gibraltar to Africa. You grid south from the US to the
Panama Canal and to South America.
Now you've got a grid around the world. Then there's no such thing as peak
power. At the moment what is happening is you've got these peaks of
electricity, and that's what kills everything. You need huge standby
generation machines to cope with the peak. Sixty percent of all the money
spent on utilities is spent on addressing the peak. It costs hundreds of
millions for only three or four hours a day. Just imagine if you had a
global solar array system all interconnected. So when the sun is setting
in one place, it's rising in another place. Then there's a continuous
amount of solar generating around the planet, feeding the whole world.
It's a different perspective. Of course, there may be security problems,
but that's nothing compared to the security problems we are currently
facing with oil. The amount of energy the sun produces in one hour is
enough to power the world for one whole year. That's' where I'm coming
from. Only we could do this as Americans, because we foster and nourish
the entrepreneurial spirit and are historically most famous for our
ingenuity. This, in my humble opinion, is our most valuable national