By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Driving around Houston, or idling in traffic on one of the city’s big expanses of highway, it’s hard to think of the nation’s oil capital as a green city.
Like other sprawling Sunbelt meccas built on the assumption that roads were forever, the city deals with intense traffic-related pollution. It’s known in the parlance of the EPA as a “non-attainment” metro area for its inability to meet healthy air quality targets. It can mount a hazy skyline to rival L.A.’s and it’s got the added burden of benzene and other toxics wafting in from nearby oil refineries. There’s a serious heat island effect at work in the summer and an SUV and truck-population that can make I-45 look like an homage to the V-8 engine — both of which increase carbon emissions, with the latter also contributing to significant ozone issues.
And still, the petrol city gets that it is a new greener day in America.
Houston, in fact, has eco-credentials that might surprise those who last visited in 1994. The city has a roster of more than 200 new and retrofitted LEED-certified buildings. City Hall has several clean energy programs in the works, and the city’s academic institutions are developing cutting-edge methods to make energy more efficiently. Researchers are studying wind, biochar, on-site natural gas and captured steam, an overlooked way of reducing the energy used by some big industries. Rice University, the Houston Advanced Research Center and the University of Houston, the first major campus in the country to launch a course on carbon trading, are all actively engaged in such sustainability projects.
At the community level, the city has carved out a great big new green meeting spot – a 12-acre urban park called Discovery Green on the rim of the downtown district. Discovery Green, completed in 2008, is seeding green awareness with native plants, a solar demonstration project, Gold-certified LEED buildings and a farmers market.
Houston also recently remedied its reputation as the last major American metro without light rail when its METRO transit system finally put trains on track to carry passengers around the inner city. It’s admittedly not a massive mass transit project, but a piece in the puzzle.
The city is trying to shake another bad rap, that its recycling rates are in the dumpster. Last year, a Mother Jones magazine review found that less than 10 percent of the city’s trash was recycled. This year, Houston is trying to improve that rate by launching a mixed-stream, curbside recycling service for residents. It is available initially to half a million of the city’s 2.2 million residents.
Even more high-profile is Houston’s plan to change the auto landscape. It will be installing several charging stations for electric vehicles and has partnered with Nissan to support the LEAF launch later this year. It’s also one of a handful of cities participating in a program to lead the electric car revolution.
But here’s the big surprise: Houston city government leads the nation in its adoption of wind power. The Bayou City, which straddles the nation’s largest collection of oil refineries and petroleum processing facilities, tops the EPA’s list of cities that buy green power. The city government gets about 34 percent of its power needs from wind sources.
Houston’s steeped in oil, it’s true. It is home to Shell Oil, ConocoPhillips and the alternative power headquarters of petroleum giant BP, currently reminding us of the hazards of fossil fuels with its uncontrolled, unprecedented oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s also the U.S. base for Vestas, the world’s largest wind energy producer, as well as Horizon Wind Energy.
Houston embraces both oil and these emerging technologies. But unlike San Francisco or even Austin, where saving the environment drives the agenda, Houston is fired up by the chance to find energy efficiencies and energy independence. It’s a different brand of sustainability that’s got one eye fixed on technical advancement and the other on the bottom line.