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The future is green

An innovative program at Cuesta College prepares students for a new economy

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FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
If you don’t know the difference between a megawatt and a megabyte or what a BTU stands for; or don’t know the meaning of such terms as lumens, foot candles, or pascals; or don’t know how the terms conduction, convection, and radiation relate to heat transfer, you’ll appreciate what the new Green Technology course at Cuesta College has to offer. Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the governor’s office, this clean energy workforce training program has engaged the interest of local officials, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Rep. Lois Capps.

The four-month course is educating a small cadre of contractors, landscapers, auditors, architects, mechanics, and former media professionals (including me) in the fine art of going green. Oriented toward getting unemployed professionals back into the economy, the course will award five separate certifications to help graduates pursue one or more of four different career choices. Led by instructor Toby Bellocchi, a builder, and theorem master Chad Worth, the course weaves its way through new and prospective building and environmental standards that will dictate the way every new home is built.

As population increases and if per capita energy consumption continues to climb at the current pace, global demand for energy will double by 2030. However, the ability to extract increasing amounts of fossil fuels has peaked, and reserves are now on the decline. That looming imbalance compels a new consciousness. An exercise early in the course determined each student’s global carbon footprint. Ranging from the energy hog to the most-thrifty of our ranks, it was determined that on average we were a “4.” That means if every person globally were to live as we do on average, four Earths would be needed to sustain the demand in energy, water, and raw materials.

How can homes be powered responsibly, efficiently? How can homeowners reduce their carbon footprint? There are some very simple answers, the course reveals. For example, consider that a full refrigerator uses less energy than an empty one and homes with south-facing windows benefit from free solar heat. Overhangs on those windows would admit the sun’s warmth only during winter months, when the sun is lower in the sky. Adding a deciduous tree would block intense solar rays during the summer but would allow in the sunlight and heat during the cold months after the leaves fall in autumn. Radiation from the sun is 100 percent efficient as an energy source, but coal is merely 15 percent efficient at net, if the energy spent mining and converting it to electricity is included in calculations. Think how beautiful the world would be if coal were abandoned in favor of solar energy: There would be no ugly coal-fired power plants, no resultant CO2 or particulate pollutants.

A bit less sexy, though very cash rewarding, are remedies to your home stemming from an energy audit. Staff from Green House Energy Audits and Energy Efficiency Solutions informed the class how homeowners squander money and resources. Energy use can be cut by 30 percent or more in many homes by relatively simple measures, they explained. Drafts and leaks can send expensive heated or air-conditioned air literally out the window. Duct leakage alone can account for a 30 percent energy loss in an HVAC system.

The benefits of those improvements to the home are threefold: health, comfort, and cash. We learned how to draw clean healthy air into the home, versus pulling air from a crawlspace that could be contaminated, and how to regulate comfort levels for various regions of the home. And we learned not only how to save on energy costs every month, but also how to qualify for rebates from the federal government, state government, and utilities.

Instruction includes the principles of photovoltaic (PV) solar systems and how to site, install, and maintain such panels for best performance. One thing I learned is PV solar panels are currently only about 18 percent efficient at converting energy from the sun into electric power. That may sound poor, but they consume no energy or expense once installed, have great longevity, and work without interruption every day with virtually no maintenance, as long as the sun shines. President Carter had panels installed on the White House that were later removed by President Reagan, but those very panels were subsequently installed at a university and are still in use.

Some buildings we’ve seen are 100 percent energy neutral; others have achieved a green building rating called LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. In fact, a couple of impressive buildings at Cal Poly have achieved the prestigious LEED Silver rating.

Homeowners can rate their dwellings according to the Home Energy Rating System (HERs) and have upgrades performed by a BPI (Building Performance Institute) accredited contractor. Class members can earn entry-level certifications, but most would require scholarships and financial aid for advanced certifications. 

Though the training program has been underway for barely six weeks (10 more to go), I feel we’re being well prepared to make a significant social, environmental, and economic contribution. For more information, see energyupgradecalifornia.com.

Shell Beach resident Frank Walters is a former editor for the CBS television network evening news. Send comments via the opinion editor at econnolly@newtimes
slo.com.

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