A survey of eco-minded initiatives reveals our desert communities’ commitment to sustainable living With about 360 sunny days a year and a mountain pass that funnels wind across the desert, the Coachella Valley should top the lists of wind- and solar-powered communities. Instead, those honors go to Rizhao, China, and Rock Port, Mo., respectively.
However, more than 8,000 Coachella Valley households have installed solar systems from one company alone, says Kirk Weiss, sales director for Solar Distributors Inc. of Palm Desert.
“I think we’re doing better than we realize,” says Carolyn Stark, assistant executive vice chancellor and executive director of University of California Riverside’s Palm Desert Graduate Center, which hosted the Desert Lyceum Symposium in April. The symposium brought together local officials and business and thought leaders to discuss issues involving quality of life, economic growth, and sustainability.
In the desert, we see the green movement surfacing in everything from the way we irrigate golf courses to the way we build, power, air condition, and landscape our houses and businesses.
Vista Dunes Courtyard Homes, an 80-unit complex that will accommodate more than 300 low-income residents in La Quinta, is the nation’s first multifamily, affordable housing development on track to receive LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The $36 million project, which opened earlier this year, features photovoltaic solar panels on every unit; tankless water heaters; dual-flush toilets; drought-tolerant landscaping; Energy Star fans, roofing, and windows; thermal chimneys to let in natural light and help with air circulation and ventilation; R-19 insulation in its exterior walls; and low- and no-VOC paints and sealers.
Palm Desert expects to complete its second LEED Silver-certified municipal structure this winter: the 5,726-square-foot Henderson Community Building being constructed with renewable and recycled materials and equipped with energy- and water-efficient appliances and fixtures. The 8,200-square-foot Palm Desert Visitors Center, completed in 2004, was the city’s first LEED Silver building.
The Coachella Valley Association of Governments has set a goal for member cities to reduce electrical consumption by 10 percent by 2012; some cities set the bar even higher. Palm Desert, for example, aims to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent by 2011 through its Set to Save program, a partnership involving the city, Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas Co., and The Energy Coalition. “We are the only city in the United States that has an energy goal like this,” says Patrick Conlon, director of Palm Desert’s Office of Energy Management.
The program, cited by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most audacious arrangements devised for a U.S. city,” includes free home energy surveys, as well as rebates to encourage businesses and residents to replace aging air conditioners, pool pumps and heaters, and appliances with energy-efficient models. They can also enjoy discounts for HVAC testing and maintenance, sunscreens and awnings, and insulation.
Conlon notes that the recent passage of Assembly Bill 811 will boost municipal efforts to stimulate purchases of energy-efficient appliances, solar panels, and dual-pane windows. The legislation gives homeowners and businesses access to city-backed, low-interest loans for energy-saving products and appliances that they can pay back through property-tax bills.
For its part, Palm Springs has approved a 20-point sustainability plan outlining green recommendations, such as replacing lawns with low-water-use landscapes, using green or sustainable building techniques when building or remodeling, and buying an alternative-fuel or hybrid vehicle.
“I think it’s a comprehensive effort to become a zero-waste community, reduce the amount of energy consumed, and reduce city water use by 50 percent,” says Kay Hazen, a consultant to the city on its sustainability effort. She says Palm Springs seeks a consultant to work with the city to develop a sustainability master plan for the community that will spell out how to achieve the plan’s recommendations. “The city has chosen to involve the entire community from the beginning, which is reflective of an understanding that everybody has a role to play,” Hazen says. “This isn’t just City Hall’s responsibility.”
Sustainable energy, water, and building practices are not entirely new in the Coachella Valley. In 2004, Cathedral City became the first city in the valley to develop a water-smart landscaping grant program, which provides matching funds of up to $500 per household to replace grass with xeriscape. That same year, the city became the first in the valley to install photovoltaic panels that doubles as a carport for its employees — saving taxpayers roughly $60,000 a year in City Hall energy costs.
As managers of one of the valley’s most valuable resources — and a core “green” issue, local water districts have an important role to play in conservation efforts. Coachella Valley Water District, which serves customers from Cathedral City to the Salton Sea, has reduced domestic water consumption by 6 percent since 2002, while its agricultural and golf course water use have fallen by 7 percent and 10 percent, respectively, says Dennis Mahr, communications and legislative director. “The reduced golf course use is through improved technology, including smart irrigation controllers and even computer-controlled individual irrigation heads,” he says.
CVWD expects to complete the first phase of a midvalley pipeline project this fall, enabling it to increase the number of golf courses irrigated with recycled water. “We’re reclaiming all of the water we can capture right now,” Mahr says, adding that the district can produce enough recycled water from its customer base to irrigate 15 courses. CVWD expects to irrigate additional golf courses with reclaimed water by the end of this year and many more after the pipeline project is completed two years from now. According to Mahr, as many as 50 golf courses could be irrigated with reclaimed water by 2015.
Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs is investing in a new reservoir and infrastructure to increase its production and use of recycled water for golf course and city park irrigation by 1,000 acre-feet. “That’s where you get your big savings,” says Dave Luker, general manager. “Recycled water not only conserves water, but [also] it conserves a lot of energy because we don’t have to pump that water from the groundwater table, so we save that electrical load.” DWA irrigates five of the nine golf courses in Palm Springs and was signing up a sixth this summer.
Earlier this year, CVWD passed an ordinance that requires new developments to include a 2-foot setback from curbs and sidewalks that can be watered only by drip irrigation. The idea is to eliminate the substantial water waste that often results from automatic sprinklers placed along curbs and sidewalks. “While grass is acceptable within the 2-foot setback if it is only on drip irrigation, we have had no takers for that option,” Mahr says. “So far, all have elected to use drip-irrigated, water-efficient shrubs and other desert natives to landscape these areas.”
Both water agencies offer rebates for weather-sensitive controllers, with DWA developing a program to offer free controllers by next summer. Meanwhile, the City of Indio Water Authority this year launched a program that offers residents $1 for every square foot of grass they replace with native landscaping, says Bob Edwards, Indio’s environmental programs coordinator.
Valley cities also are working with Southern California Edison and Imperial Irrigation District to participate in rebate programs for energy-efficient appliances, while stepping up their recycling, document shredding, and hazardous-waste collection programs.
Southern California Gas Co. has generated interest in its energy-saving programs for home builders and hotels. The 130-home Shea Trilogy development in La Quinta is being built to Energy Star standards that surpass by 15 percent California’s Title 24 building code requirements, says Rachel Lang, a Sempra Energy spokeswoman. La Quinta Resort & Club and Hilton Palm Springs have replaced their laundry driers during the past year to save energy, Lang says.
Several of the Coachella Valley’s newest projects are being built to LEED certifications. They include The Shoppes of Rancho Mirage, a 51,000-square-foot retail center (the first Gold-level retail project in the Coachella Valley) and the 230,000-square-foot 5 Peaks shopping center in Rancho Mirage across the street from the city’s public library. Both projects will have green design elements, including solar panels and plug-ins for electric cars, says Bud Kopp, a Rancho Mirage senior planner. Another prominent Rancho Mirage project approved this year, the 15,142-square-foot Annenberg Visitor Center, will include several energy-conservation elements, including a solar field and a geothermal plant to provide power for the educational facility.
Even construction processes have begun to change in the valley. When Sunrise Co. of Palm Desert submitted plans to the City of Indian Wells to build Toscana Country Club, the city demanded that the company recycle at least 70 percent of its building waste, exceeding state requirements by 20 percent. Sunrise embraced the challenge and achieved recycling rates of 80 to 86 percent by having its subcontractors sort their construction waste into separate recycling containers for cardboard, asphalt, concrete, green waste, and wood. “Several months ago, we were recycling as much as 500 tons of material a month,” says Bob Jokola, Sunrise Co.’s recycling manager.
Cathedral City has organized a recycling program that reuses more than 30,000 tons of recycling waste per year, saving the city and its redevelopment agency nearly $1.5 million in disposal and transportation costs, says Allen Howe, assistant to the city manager.
Local efforts don’t stop there. Proactive thinking on sustainable policies and initiatives is continuing through green conferences such as the Desert Lyceum Symposium, and it is increasingly becoming a forefront issue across the valley.
“You have to make this a commitment for the long haul,” Hazen says. “This is not a project so much as a commitment to do things in a new and different way, to change the way we do things and to recognize that behavior change is the way to deliver on these goals. It won’t work if it is seen as just the latest trend.”
Every time Jan and Dick Storbo drive their Prius from Bozeman, Mont., to their vacation house in La Quinta, their eyes invariably fix on the sea of windmills along Interstate 10 in Palm Springs and they marvel at the alternative energy in production.
In the desert, where the sun shines intensely nearly year-round, the Storbos knew they had to take advantage of the weather, but also find relief from it, and that meant going green in more ways than one.
The couple bought their house in 2004 and hired Renova Energy Corp. of Palm Desert to conduct its trademarked Five Star Energy Audit, which gives business- and homeowners a chance to implement cost-saving, energy-efficient changes before going entirely solar. “The little up-front, preventative work will reduce the cost of the solar-panel system,” says co-founder and President Vincent Battaglia. “Now you have a less expensive system that is easier to finance.”
Following the audit, the Storbos replaced their energy-depleting pool pump with one with IntelliFlo technology to operate at variable speeds depending on water level. It can drop annual costs from about $1,500 to $175.
Click And Save
Cities and utilities throughout the Coachella Valley offer various rebates and other incentives to encourage residents to purchase energy and water-efficient appliances and building materials. The state of California also offers tax credits for the purchase of solar energy equipment. Additionally, the state Legislature passed AB 811, which authorizes cities to provide low-interest loans to property owners, who would repay the loans as they pay their property tax bills. Here, we list Web sites with detailed information on these rebate programs. However, you must contact city hall to determine if your city plans to offer low-interest loans for energy efficiency improvements.
Interstate Renewable Energy Council: For an extensive list of federal, state, and local rebate programs, tax credits, and other incentives to promote the use of alternative-energy products, visit www.dsireusa.org/index.
Solar Energy Rebates: For detailed information on solar energy rebates, visit www.gosolarcalifornia.org, a Web site co-hosted by the California Public Utilities Commission and California Energy Commission.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy’s Energy Star Program: Get useful information on rebates and tax credits, as well as home energy audits and the latest energy-saving products from computers to kitchen appliances at www.energystar.gov.
Cathedral City: www.cathedralcity.gov/recycle/recycle.htm
Palm Desert’s Set to Save Program: www.settosave.com
Coachella Valley Water District: www.cvwd.org/conservation/conservation.php
Desert Water Agency: www.dwa.org/conservation
Imperial Irrigation District: www.iid.com
Southern California Edison: www.sce.com/powerandenvironment/renewables
Southern California Gas Company: www.socalgas.com/residential/assistance
20 Things You Can Do
- Use compact fluorescent light bulbs
- Turn your thermostat down in the winter and up in the summer
- Clean or replace your air conditioning filter
- Conserve water
- Reduce, reuse, recycle
- Use energy-efficient appliances
- Turn off lights, computers, and TVs when not in use
- Leave the car at home; bike, walk, carpool, or take the bus
- Incorporate shade into your landscape
- Install insulation in your home
- Get a home energy audit and incorporate recommendations
- Use low- or no-VOC paint
- Buy local, sustainable foods
- Get a water audit and incorporate recommendations
- Replace lawn with low-water-use landscaping
- Drive an alternative fuel or hybrid vehicle
- Use green or sustainable building techniques when building or remodeling
- Drink tap water to reduce the use of plastic bottles
- Get your car tuned up
- Wash only full loads in clothes and dish washers
Source: Palm Springs Path to a Sustainable Community
Turn On Your Conservation
“I want an economy based on conservation and alternative technology,” Jan Storbo says. “I believe it’s possible without sacrificing our lifestyle. There is so much sunshine that it seems wrong for it to go to waste.”
The Storbos also agreed to install a garage fan to disperse hot air; replace dawn-to-dusk outdoor lighting with LED bulbs that use a tenth of the energy with no loss of brightness from a standard 60-watt bulb; cover their windows with V-Kool coating to reflect UV rays; and install natural lighting via Solatubes. Solatubes (cylinders lined with reflective material that run from ceiling to roof with a dome at the end to capture and transfer inside low-angle daylight for even dispersion) keep out 95 percent of UVA rays, and the lining reflects the heat. The Storbos now have plans to install solar panels, which, on average, recoup the cost in eight to 10 years. Renova’s ultimate objective is to reduce its clients’ energy use from the electrical grid to zero.
“The goal is ultimately to install the solar system, but the idea is to reduce energy first with other things,” Renova co-founder Thomas Hall says. “It’s all about sustainability.”
Renova has installed 42 solar panels on the roof of a 1970s Palm Springs house owned by Keith Harwood and his wife, Randy. Renova conducted the same audit and suggested the couple, who moved into their house in February, replace the pool pump and heater, install solar-powered fans in the attic and garage, and apply window coating. “There seems to be no end to making your home green,” Keith Harwood says.
Seattle-based Callahan Concierge offers an audit that introduces clients to the small and potentially big ways they can go green — from the purchase of cleaning supplies, pet food, and nontoxic plastic to new heating and air-conditioning systems, all-natural bedding, and low-flow faucets and toilets.
“There is really no standard for green consulting, so there is not a lot of information in one spot,” says Kristen Fredrick, executive director of Callahan’s Coachella Valley office. “What we do is compile it from everywhere.”
If a client has a concern or question, Callahan researches the best answer or solution. The company will provide recommendations based on its green audit and can even serve as a one-stop shop for green changes.
Callahan’s consultation focuses on three main issues: health, energy savings, and environmentalism.
“Some people are concerned about water quality — both bathing and drinking, others are concerned about the cost of utilities, and others have environmental or health concerns,” Fredrick says. She begins in the kitchen and discusses all that can be changed in the room from recycling and composting to water purification options and Energy Star appliances. Then it’s on to the bathroom.
Palm Desert — in conjunction with Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas Co., and The Energy Coalition — implemented the Set to Save program as a way to reduce the city’s energy usage 30 percent by 2011. Free home and business surveys include switching out old light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones, installing low-flow showerheads, and air conditioner tune-ups, as well as rebates, cash incentives, and information on funding energy-saving projects such as solar panels.
A green existence constitutes wide-ranging measures that embody a merging of environmental/conservation awareness, collective conscientiousness, and an interest in improved health. The general consensus, however, to going green is all about details that can start small and end big, since virtually every piece of a house is green-worthy.
Tips from the Expert
Callahan Concierge turns clients on to big and little ways to go green
Little things: The key to going green is to do what you can, so start small, such as using green cleaning products.
Personal care: Callahan gives clients a wallet-size guide of 12 ingredients to avoid in personal-care products. Look for third-party certifications.
Second life: Recycle bottles, cans, and newspapers. Disposing of an old computer, mobile phone, or any electronic device is easy (www.epa.gov/plug-in). Callahan has a partnership with Cell Phones for Soldiers (www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com) that helps overseas military personnel call home.
Electricity eaters: Unplug appliances you are not using. A mobile phone charger plugged into the socket uses energy whether or not it’s actually charging the phone. Plug electronics into a power strip that you can turn off.
Water savers: Look for a low-flow or even a composting toilet (www.envirolet.com), place a milk container filled with rocks in the tank to displace the water, or install a system that reuses faucet water (www.watersavertech.com). Replace showerheads with ones that emit less water. Install a tankless, on-demand water heater and Energy Star washer.
Lights, please: Replace standard bulbs with LEDs that last upward of 60,000 hours.
Soft stuff: Buy untreated, organic cotton bedding and towels. If you want color, look for cotton made with vegetable-based dyes. Look for recyclable modular carpet tiles made out of hemp or wool (www.flor.com). Look for furniture, window treatments, and mattress box springs certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Try to obtain verification the wood was harvested or reclaimed in a sustainable way.
Remodeling: The latest recommendations when it comes to the level of recycled content in building materials can be found at California’s Buy Recycled Campaign (www.ciwmb.ca.gov/Buyrecycled/StateAgency). Double-pane windows insulate against heat and cold. The latest heating and air-conditioning systems allow users to control the temperature in each room.
Drink up: Give up bottled water in lieu of a water purification system.