By consuming less energy, green buildings help
VOL. 24, NO. 9
reduce harmful air pollution.
by RICHARD CRUME
Ask the average American about he advantages of green buildings, and you’re likely to hear about reduced energy costs and the fight
against global warming. What you won’t hear
as often? That green buildings can help address
our nation’s air pollution problem, a point often
missed in discussions dominated by energy efficiency and climate change.
in waterways and contaminate fish taken by
sport and commercial fishermen. Some types
of coal are cleaner than others when burned,
but even the cleaner coals cause air pollution
that can drift across state boundaries and infiltrate urban areas, where air pollution tends to
be the worst.
Energy-efficient homes, commercial buildings and factories cut the demand for electricity
and the need for new electric power plant construction. Coal-burning plants in particular emit
harmful air pollutants and contribute to urban
pollution problems, like smog. Nearly 50 percent
of U.S. electricity generation takes place at utility
power plants fueled by coal.
It can be hard to quantify the health benefits
linked to reducing greenhouse gases like carbon
dioxide, but green building advocates can point
to concrete positive results when talking about
air pollution reduction. Cleaner air means fewer
doctor visits and missed school days, less sick
leave from work and lower health insurance premiums, especially for residents of urban areas.
The EPA reports that electric utilities alone
contribute about 70 percent of total sulfur dioxide emissions, about 20 percent of nitrogen
oxides emissions and about 10 percent of small
particle emissions — three of the major air pollutants regulated by federal environmental standards ( epa.gov/air). Large electric power plants
are subject to stringent environmental regula-tory requirements, and as a consequence, many
incorporate sophisticated air-pollution-control
equipment costing many millions of dollars to
install and operate. Air-pollution emissions from
these plants have been declining.
Living with Polluted air
Since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970,
air pollution emitted into the atmosphere
has declined dramatically, resulting in steady
improvement to the nation’s air quality. Even
so, over half of all Americans still live in counties
with unhealthful levels of air pollution, according
to the American Lung Association’s “State of the
Air 2010” report ( stateoftheair.org). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates
that 127 million Americans live in counties violating at least one national ambient air quality
standard ( epa.gov/airtrends).
Yet, even with this equipment, electric power
plant pollution remains a problem as U.S. electricity needs continue to grow. The Energy Star
program ( energystar.gov) estimates that new
power generation equal to nearly 300 electric
power plants (at 1,000 megawatts each, on average) will be needed by the year 2030 to meet
projected electricity demand.
consuming Less Power
Although the Obama administration has
reopened the debate on nuclear power, the
long lead time required for new nuclear facilities ensures that coal will dominate for the near
future. Advances in renewable energy sources
will help offset the need for new coal-fired power
plants, but renewable energy investment and
infrastructure will need to grow for a number of
years before unseating coal.
While air pollution has many sources, includ-
ing manufacturing facilities, automobiles and
trucks, non-nuclear power plants are some of the
largest contributors to polluted air. In particular,
coal-burning power plants release a variety of
pollutants into the atmosphere that can deposit
In the near term, energy conservation is the
most effective way to reduce power consump-
tion and the need for new coal-fired power plant
construction. Green building practices for both
new construction and retrofits are attractive
because buildings consume lots of electric power
Richard Crume works as an environmental engineer
and teaches a college course on air pollution and climate change. A frequent contributor to SOLAR TODA Y,
he lives with his family in Chapel Hill, N.C. You can
reach Crume at email@example.com.
and many energy-efficiency improvements can
be achieved with modest investment.
Fortunately, architects and builders have been
making great strides in reducing energy consumption. For example, the top-performing Energy Star
commercial buildings use 35 percent less energy
than typical buildings, and energy-efficient homes
routinely achieve energy savings of 20 to 30
percent or more over traditional construction.
Clean air is important to good
health. The average adult
takes 24,000 breaths each
day, equivalent to about
3,000 gallons of air.
Protecting Public health
Air pollution is a recognized public health
concern. According to the EPA:
People exposed to high enough levels of certain air pollutants may experience burning in their
eyes, an irritated throat or breathing difficulties.
Long-term exposure to air pollution can cause cancer and long-term damage to the immune, neurological, reproductive and respiratory systems. In
extreme cases, it can even cause death ( epa.gov/