U.S. Department Of Energy Holding Solar Decathlon In October

For the sixth time since 2002, the U.S. Department of Energy, along with several sponsors including Bosch, Cisco and Wells Fargo, will be hosting the Solar Decathlon at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. The competition pits teams of college students from universities all over the world against each other in an effort to design and construct solar powered homes that are energy efficiently, cost effective and aesthetically pleasing.

Twenty teams will be given ten days to build solar homes that generate as much or more energy than they consume. They will also be required to meet certain efficiency benchmarks, and the houses need to be built affordably. The goal of the competition is to promote renewable energy and demonstrate the viability of homes that meet strict environmental and sustainability criteria. In addition, the organizers are hoping to educate the public about clean technology, and encourage the students participating to pursue careers in green tech industries.

Jury panels made up of architecture, engineering and design experts will judge each team's structure in ten categories, including its ability to produce enough hot water for residents, the comfort of the interiors and whether the HVAC system works as planned.

The winners of the competition receive name recognition and networking opportunities. The popularity of the U.S. Solar Decathlon has spawned similar events in other countries spread throughout Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

The competition will take place from October 3-13. Last year's winners, the University of Maryland, won't be participating, but teams from Arizona State University, Santa Clara University and Czech Technical University in the Czech Republic will be taking part.

For more news about the green living and technology industry, check back with LifeIsGreen.com soon.

3 Eco-Friendly Home Improvement Projects For Fall

Autumn is a great time to work on home improvement projects, as it's your last chance before winter weather arrives. With the end of summer approaching, temperatures will soon fall and working outside will be much more doable if you need to patch up holes in your roof or clean your gutters.

Living Green Magazine has some suggestions for projects that are low-cost and eco-friendly at the same time:

  • Install a solar clothes dryer. While the article essentially recommends using clothes lines, there are actually several products available that have vastly improved on the basic clothes line by incorporating a spinning mechanism and canopy that make the drying process more efficient.
  • Switch to cork flooring in your kitchen. Besides being impermeable to moisture (which will help prevent mold and mildew spores) and fire resistant, cork is also sustainable. It can be harvested repeatedly from the same tree without killing it. The manufacturing process itself makes this one of the most environmentally friendly products available, as cork flooring is a byproduct of cork wine bottle stoppers.
  • Use non-VOC paint. Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are carbon-based chemicals that can cause headaches, skin and throat irritation or even cancer. Painted walls with VOC paints will slowly release them into the air, leaving long-term occupants at risk. See our recent coverage of building materials for more information.

Remember that remodeling your home in an eco-friendly way doesn't need to be expensive. None of these options require additional costs above what you would normally spend if you were to choose conventional, unsustainable methods.

Keep checking back with LifeIsGreen.com for more green living ideas.

Wisconsin Hospital Leading The Way In Energy Efficiency

Something not commonly known is that hospitals and medical facilities consume a great deal more energy than typical commercial buildings. On average, they use 2.5 times as much electricity, leading to significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions, not to mention costs (which are passed on to patients and health insurers). It's easy to see why: Hospitals are open 24 hours a day, run heating, air conditioning and air filtration systems almost continuously, and utilize large pieces of medical equipment that eat up a lot of power.

So it's no surprise that many health facilities are making a major effort to cut down on energy waste and increase efficiency. To give an example, consider the Gundersen Health System, based in La Crosse, Wisconsin, whose leadership was recently honored by the Obama Administration for being "Champions of Change". Led by Dr. Jeff Thompson, Gundersen has been engaged in an effort to cut his organization's carbon emissions and make the facility energy independent by 2014.

In an interview with EarthTechling, a clean technology news site, Thompson described Gundersen's energy solutions that have been most effective. Among the many measures they've undertaken are a switch to methane from a local landfill to provide heating and electricity, which accomplished several goals: It lowered the hospital's electricity bills by $400,000 annually, and diverted methane that was simply being burned and released into the atmosphere so that it is actually put to good use.

"…We try and think about the patients' whole environment rather than just a single patient encounter," Thompson told the source. "Healthcare organizations contribute to pollution, workplace costs, landfill waste and many other problems that affect communities. We need to take responsibility and take action."

LifeIsGreen.com will continue to provide the latest news on renewable energy and green living.

What To Do With Your Organic Farm In The Fall

Pretty soon, summer will end and yield to the colder temperatures of fall, and for many this signals the end of gardening season. Most home gardeners only practice during warm weather months, which is a shame given the plethora of excellent crops that can be raised during other times of the year, including kale, garlic, broccoli and beans. There's no reason why you can't continue enjoying organic, sustainable fruits and vegetables year round from your backyard, as long as you know when to plant the right seeds and how to adjust your watering and harvesting methods.

TreeHugger​, an environmental news site, has a few great tips for what to do with your garden as we approach the fall and winter months:

  • Begin planting fall vegetables. They tend to be a lot less labor intensive because temperatures are milder, while rain water provides an excellent and frequent source of hydration.
  • Cover your flower beds in mulch. Whether you plan to keep going through winter, a good layer of mulch and compost can replenish nutrients in the soil and keep weeds down.
  • Plant perennials. Because there are several months of cool weather before the hotter months return, perennials like fruit trees have a chance to put down roots and strengthen in time for July and August, making it much more likely that they'll survive and begin delivering delicious berries, citrus fruits or whatever you decide to plant.

By trying out some new techniques and expanding your gardening skills repertoire, you can turn your backyard into a veritable year-round, organic vegetable factory, helping the environment as well as the health of you and your family!

Keep checking back with LifeIsGreen.com for more information on green living ideas.

Can The United States Catch Up To Germany On Solar Power?

On August 22, it was announced that Germany had set a new record for solar-generated electricity, a milestone for what has become the leader in installed solar power capacity. The country was able to produce 5.1 terawatt-hours of electricity in the month of July, six times the record in the United States. 

This raises the question of why Germany is doing such a better job of integrating renewable energy into its grid, and what the United States can do to start catching up.

As with many issues when it comes to energy, much has to do with having a favorable public policy environment that encourages more development of renewable sources and discourages reliance on fossil fuels. Though the United States has made a more urgent effort to promote wind and solar power in the last decade, a major impediment to the growth of these industries has been slow permitting processes and political opposition.

According to CleanTechnica, a clean technology news site, in Germany it costs an average of $2.44 per watt to install a solar energy system, compared to $4.44 in the United States. Much of the disparity comes from lower "soft costs" in the former – the parts of installation other than the panels themselves, such as labor, marketing, administrative costs and permitting fees. Although panel prices have fallen considerably in the last decade, they can only go so far, while in the United States soft costs have remained relatively flat over the last five years.

The good news is that Americans have in Germany a model for designing a renewable energy regulatory structure that works, so the remaining question is whether or not we'll be able to emulate it, or if we'll continue down the path of dirty fossil fuels such as oil and coal. 

To keep up with the renewable energy industry, keep checking back with LifeIsGreen.com.

EPA And Ford Revise Fuel Economy Numbers For C-Max Hybrid

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be revising its testing procedures and policies in light of a recent controversy surrounding the mileage ratings for the Ford C-Max Hybrid. The EPA had originally rated the C-Max with the same fuel economy as the Ford Fusion Hybrid, but after complaints from customers that they were unable to achieve the same numbers, the organization found that in fact the C-Max was not as efficient as originally reported.

The agency used the same ratings for both vehicles because the Fusion Hybrid has the same engine, test weight and transmission, leading regulators to believe that it would perform similarly. But small changes in the design and form factor contributed to lower gas mileage for the C-Max.

Original reported to achieve 47 miles per gallon (mpg) on both city streets and highways, the C-Max is now rated at 40 mpg on streets and 43 mpg on the freeway.

"They're trying to do it all with one test cycle and you just can't," said John O'Dell, senior editor for fuel efficiency and green cars at Edmunds.com, a car-shopping site, told the Christian Science Monitor. "The EPA rating has become sort of a gospel. It's not gospel, but we're tending to look at it as gospel."

Ford isn't the only company to have had the same issue. In November last year, Kia and Hyundai were forced to revise advertised efficiency ratings after they were accused of inflating this information. In a statement, the EPA said it would be working with consumer groups and manufacturers to revise rules relating to fuel economy standards and testing, though specific changes were not detailed. 

For more information on green living and environmentally friendly products, keep checking back with LifeIsGreen.com.

Is Rooftop Farming The Next Big Trend In Urban Food Culture?

A recent article published by environmental news site Grist discusses the merits and future of rooftop farming, which has caught people's attention in part because of the success of Uncommon Ground, a restaurant in Chicago that grows its produce on the roof. While urban rooftop gardens have been a staple of areas like Brooklyn and Boston for years, the notion of growing food on a commercial scale atop buildings is a relatively new concept that has been put into practice in just a few places the last couple of years.

The advantages of this method are obvious: The urban location of rooftop farms make it much easier to transport and deliver fruits and vegetables to the people who eat them. This cuts down on energy consumption, as the produce doesn't have to be shipped thousands of miles to reach your plate, and typically these farms are operated sustainably and responsibly, unlike conventional factory farms.

Among other benefits, rooftop farming cools buildings, raises property values, and convert unused space that would otherwise remain unoccupied. 

Steven Peck, president of the Toronto-based nonprofit Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, tells the source that five years ago, there were no such farms in North America. He now estimates that there are about 20 in existence, and that there could be as many as 100 five years from now. The main obstacle to the spread of this trend are zoning policies that limit the expanse of urban agriculture, but there are efforts in many cities to rewrite these regulations in an effort to encourage the construction of these projects.

Keep checking back with LifeIsGreen.com for more information on green living ideas.

Is Hempcrete The Future Of Green Building?

Lately we've been talking a lot about the green building movement, and one area that deserves more attention is concrete and its alternatives. It's such a ubiquitous material that you hardly ever notice when structures and road ways are made out of it, but concrete's production and use have serious consequences for the natural environment and public health.

The first problem is that making concrete requires a great deal of energy. Cement, a mixture of clay and limestone that serves as a binding agent for the water and aggregate (stone) compounds found in concrete, needs to be ground into a powder, then heated to a high temperature that releases CO2 into the atmosphere. This process gives conventional concrete a high carbon footprint.

Enter hempcrete, a building material that uses the silica-heavy shiv, or core, of the hemp plant as part of the binding mixture that makes up cement. The material achieves a carbon-negative status because more carbon dioxide is consumed by the plant while it grows than is emitted during the production process.

Hempcrete can be used in the same way as concrete. Thought it lacks some of the strength of conventional cement alternative, it is still perfectly safe to be used for homes and smaller buildings. It's also a great insulator, helping you save energy, fireproof, waterproof and it's resistant to mold. Some manufacturers even claim that it's recyclable. 

The main obstacle to wider use of this material is that industrial hemp production is illegal in the U.S., due to marijuana laws. But hempcrete can be procured from abroad, and new producers are cropping up everywhere, so it's bound to become more accessible over time.

Keep visiting LifeIsGreen.com for more information on green living and building practices.

Straw Bale Construction Offers Improved Energy Efficiency And Safety

Recently we've been covering the movement to incorporate more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices in housing and building, as this is an area where there are a lot of potential gains to be made by reducing energy and material waste. One such practice that has grown in popularity over the past few years is straw bale construction.

It's exactly what it sounds like: tightly-compress bales of straw are stacked to form the walls of a structure. They're usually supported by some kind of rebar or bamboo anchoring.

It may seem strange that modern homes could be built using straw, but in fact this process has a lot of benefits. To begin with, straw is a renewable and easy to grow crop that takes much less time to raise in a field than the pine trees and other woods that are used for lumber in housing stock. It's also much less energy intensive than concrete, which requires massive machinery to produce.

But straw has other, more surprising features, such as its resistance to fire. It may seem odd that a pile of dry grass would be a flame retardant, but in fact the straw bales that are used in construction are packed so tightly that there are almost no pockets of air inside, making it impossible for fire to thrive. Straw bales also make an excellent insulator, keeping your home warm in the winter and cool in the summer just as well as the fiberglass insulation that is used in conventional buildings. Concerned about termites? SustainableSources.com, a green building site, reports that there is no evidence straw bales are susceptible to termite infestations.

For more information about green living and sustainable construction, keep visiting LifeIsGreen.com.

Green Building Turning Back The Clock

Recently we wrote about the green building movement and what this actually entailed. Basically, a building is considered green if the materials and processes used to construct it are environmentally sustainable and responsible. For example, structures that utilize recycled materials and are built in such a way as to promote energy efficiency can generally be classified as green.

A new report from Navigant Research, a market research organization, sheds some light on this topic and provides some interesting analysis of trends in the construction industry toward more eco-friendly practices. The authors of the study found that many builders are turning to traditional materials that had previously been viewed as technologically antiquated, because the production processes used to make them are less energy intensive and come from natural, and often renewable, sources.

"Innovation in green materials is driving, in a sense, a regression, in which materials made from bio-based or quickly regenerating resources that are low in embodied energy and carbon, are re-emerging," Eric Bloom, senior research analyst with Navigant Research, said in a news release.  "Examples include timber structures and cladding, straw-bale construction, lime renders and mortars, cellulose insulation, bamboo flooring, and natural mineral and fiber floor coverings."

The report also predicts that the growth of the green building will skyrocket. The authors project that it will increase from a $116 billion market in 2013 to over $254 billion in 2020. Although the green building materials industry suffered somewhat during the Great Recession, it experienced less of a fall in demand than the conventional building materials market, and seems to be expanding at a greater rate.

Keep visiting LifeIsGreen.com for more news about green living.