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Amanda Griscom

Amanda Griscom, an energy analyst at the environmental consulting
firm GreenOrder, is an energy columnist for Grist magazine

  • Architecture September 5, 2002

    A Green Ground Zero

    The debate over how to redevelop the World Trade Center site has revolved around several key concerns: the commercial interests of the real estate industry, the public's desire to embolden Manhattan's skyline with exciting architecture and the historic obligation to memorialize thousands of lost lives. As we continue to address and balance these concerns, let's also seize the chance to reclaim Ground Zero in the spirit of the twenty-first century, showcasing one of today's most inspiring and politically meaningful industrial movements: the revolution in clean energy.

    Imagine for a moment that the structures surrounding the memorial will be sheathed in an invisible skin of electricity-producing solar cells. During the day, while electricity demand is peaking, the buildings will silently, automatically produce energy. No power plants or transmission lines necessary. No greenhouse emissions. No need for oil, coal, natural gas or nuclear energy. No risk of blackouts. No spiking electricity prices. Computer and phone networks, elevators, clocks, air conditioners and ATMs will all run simply, cleanly, like a crop of corn or a grove of trees, on sunlight. (The complex will be connected to the grid, drawing electricity when necessary--at night or on cloudy days--and pumping power back in when it creates a surplus.)

    These high-tech buildings will supply all the services and comforts of a traditional commercial or residential complex but require less than half the electricity because of their green design features: superinsulated walls and windows; highly efficient appliances and lighting, heating and cooling systems; and a motion-sensing laser system that will automatically switch off lights and equipment when not in use. Whereas the original World Trade Center complex guzzled nearly 100 megawatts of electricity a day on peak days, with associated emissions, the new complex will be a net-zero-emission development. Moreover, this mini-El Dorado of energy independence and its surrounding neighborhood will be designed to have minimal need for cars and trucks. Once there, visitors will be in the greatest walking neighborhood in the world. The three airports, Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark, will be connected by train to the downtown terminal, making it an easy commute. An expanded network of ferries connecting lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey and uptown will provide a fast and pleasurable way to get around. The heart of lower Manhattan will be knitted together by a clean, quiet street grid restored for use by pedestrians alone.

    "From both a technological and cost standpoint, this scenario is entirely possible," says Ashok Gupta, an energy economist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Solar systems, fuel cells and energy-efficiency measures have already been implemented in the design of several skyscrapers in Manhattan, including the Condé Nast building at Times Square and the residential tower at Battery Park currently under construction. As clean-energy technologies become rapidly more sophisticated and affordable, a large-scale application at Ground Zero would galvanize their acceptance in the marketplace. As for transportation, fuel-cell-powered buses and taxis may be too expensive today, but already they're technologically feasible. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) and the Port Authority have approved additional rail connections for commuters beneath the new complex; they are also considering plans to depress the West Side Highway for a more pedestrian-friendly environment, and to add new ferry lines at Battery Park and on the East River.

    The opportunities are real, but they can't be realized without leaders. Yet neither Governor George Pataki, site developer Larry Silverstein nor Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed much interest so far. "Mr. Silverstein isn't really thinking about this," says his spokesperson. "It's just too early to get bogged down in these kinds of details." Pataki's office expressed a similar lack of initiative, saying the issues are important but not yet a priority. Alex Garvin, vice president of planning for the LMDC, was more assertive in his commitment: "We plan to establish standards for sustainability and green technology that architects will be not only encouraged but required to meet. But we can't get started on this now; it's too early to determine the details."

    Prominent green architects disagree. Robert Fox, senior principal of Fox and Fowle, the architecture firm that designed the Condé Nast building, says planners should adopt the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, the gold standard for sustainable building practices. "Now is the time to address this, at the beginning of the planning process," stresses Fox. "Sustainability measures must be incorporated into every aspect of the design, from the infrastructure of the water, sewage and electricity systems to the external PV-integrated paneling."

    It's a safe bet that the public will support much if not all of the larger zero-energy vision. In addition to the LMDC, two coalitions--Civic Alliance, representing more than 100 institutions, and New York New Visions, representing dozens of local architecture firms--have endorsed principles for downtown redevelopment that promote sustainable design and clean energy. Furthermore, there's impressive evidence that supports the use of clean-energy systems: Richard Perez, a scientist at SUNY Albany who's been tracking sunlight in New York City for more than ten years, has found that the average amount of sun that hits the city annually is only 12 percent less than that in cloudless Tucson.

    Right now the Pataki administration is considering a proposal to limit power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide 30-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. Building a zero-energy complex and a state-of-the-art transportation system would advance these goals and address the mounting crisis of global warming, while making a clear statement about America's commitment to energy independence. Since September 11 many energy experts have called for a massive, government-funded research project, a "Manhattan Project of alternative energy" to alleviate our dependence on foreign oil. The opportunity for such an initiative now lies at the foot of Manhattan. Nothing would be more appropriate for a memorial to a traumatic past than one that points us in the direction of a sustainable future.

    Amanda Griscom and Will Dana