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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 renewable methods."

 


The Deep Roots of the Sustainability Movement
A Green Technology Interview with Bharat Patel


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 related story).

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 phases.

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 here.

What are the benefits of this project to the community or to the nation?

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 different way.

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 renewable methods.

What do you think the energy landscape will look like in another fifty years? 

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 product.


 

   


 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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