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After slow start, ‘green’ building begins to take root in Wyoming

Davey Jackson.jpg

Over the past few years, a growing number of people in Wyoming have been constructing buildings with an eye to making them more energy efficient. But Wyoming still lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to “green” building. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: Davey Jackson Elementary School is one of Wyoming’s most environmentally friendly buildings. It’s highly insulated, has triple paned windows to retain heat, it’s outfitted with water-saving toilets, and the carpeting is made from recycled materials. Facilities Director Kevin Thibeault shows me into a classroom. Sunshine pours in through a wall of windows.

KEVIN THIBEAULT: The lighting in here automatically will reduce in output as the day gets brighter. So it takes the electrical demand off and is using natural light.

BELDEN: Other parts of the building use a fancy type of skylight to reduce the need for regular electric lights.

Thibeault says building an energy efficient school was the right thing to do, for environmental reasons.

THIBEAULT: I guess I could best be described as a redneck with a green stripe down me.

BELDEN: But the green features also save the school district money, at least in the long run. Thibeault says it costs a thousand dollars a month to heat and light Davey Jackson Elementary, which breaks down to just 17 cents per square foot. He says utility bills for other schools in the district are way higher.

THIBEAULT: So I have a building – it’s an elementary school. It’s almost at two dollars a square foot to heat and light that thing. If you compare apples to apples, 17 cents versus almost two dollars a square foot – big difference, isn’t it?

BELDEN: The school got what’s known as LEED Certification, which means it met national standards for being environmentally friendly.

Across the state, more and more buildings are meeting those same standards. Seven years ago, there were no LEED buildings in Wyoming. Now there are about 40. And many more are in the works.

Brendan Schulte heads the Wyoming chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which is the organization that oversees LEED certification. He says interest is definitely growing.

BRENDAN SCHULTE: I just had that last week – I had someone who they were buying a lot, and they saw that I was a LEED AP and asked me, ‘Can you talk to me about building my house more sustainably?’ I said absolutely. Three years ago, that didn’t happen.

BELDEN: Schulte says the cost of building green is also going down, because materials and technologies are becoming more mainstream. He says the payback period on a LEED-certified home could be as little as five years. After that, you’re saving money – and helping the planet.

It’s hard to say exactly how much green building cuts down on greenhouse gases, but it can be significant. One example is the University of Wyoming. Since 2007, UW has been making its new buildings more energy efficient, and several have LEED certification. As a result, even though the university is growing, its overall carbon footprint has shrunk. Director of Facilities Planning Roger Baalman says that’s good PR.

ROGER BAALMAN: You know, students are starting to look for colleges and universities that are conservation conscious – I’ll say that.

BELDEN: But Wyoming is still behind the rest of the country when it comes to green building. Brendan Schulte with the U.S. Green Building Council says one reason is that electricity here is cheap, so it takes longer to realize the financial benefits. He says another reason that green building has been slow to catch on has to do with a general Wyoming mentality.

SCHULTE: Wyoming is a resource state. So there’s a little bit of opposition to green building because I think … there’s a perception that green building is out to get fossil fuels.

BELDEN: And finally there are logistical hurdles. Specialists in green technologies aren’t always available locally. At Davey Jackson Elementary, they had to bring in someone from California to do the lighting system. And to get LEED certification, there are lots of hoops to jump through.

Stephen Grimshaw is a developer who constructed Wyoming’s first energy-efficient apartment buildings, in Casper. He had to pay for a LEED inspector to come all the way from Boulder, Colorado multiple times during the construction process. And there was a mountain of paperwork.

STEPHEN GRIMSHAW: The documentation process is extremely cumbersome, and we’ve got a year’s worth of one person’s labor involved in just the documentation.

BELDEN: Grimshaw says he’s delighted to have built a sustainable building and plans to do future green projects. But he won’t try to get them LEED certified.

Then again, a building can be just as green without having the LEED seal of approval. Advocates say the other roadblocks to green building in Wyoming aren’t insurmountable either.

Milton Geiger is an Energy Extension Coordinator at UW. He says, sure, if buildings use less energy, demand for things like natural gas might decrease slightly. But he says that’s unlikely to hurt the industry and shouldn’t drive decision making.

MILTON GEIGER: It’d be akin to saying, ‘Well, if Wyoming wanted to stimulate their economy, everybody should leave their windows open all winter.’ I mean, it’d be the same type of thing – saying, ‘Let’s just burn more energy and not burn it wisely.’

BELDEN: Geiger says he expects green building to grow quickly in Wyoming as people become more aware of the long-term cost savings.

GEIGER: It is a logical economic decision. It doesn’t need to be sold as ok it’s for sustainability or other environmental concerns or whatever. It can just be, hey I reduced my cost and it was an appropriate investment of capital.

BELDEN: And when you put it like that, he says, green building should become very popular in a state like Wyoming. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.

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