Thirty years ago, then-president Jimmy Carter boosted the fund-raising and building effort that led to Knoxville’s 1982 World’s Fair with a proclamation calling the city: “a splendid setting in which to explore new technologies to conserve energy, to harness the long-lasting and most renewable sources, and to carry on the search for new sources of energy.” It was a brief moment in the sun, brought on by all-too-recent memories of the Arab oil embargo and the subsequent economic recession that rippled through the country for the remainder of the ’70s.
By the time the actual fair opened, however, it was “Morning Again in America.” Soon, the city and nation forgot about silly things like renewable energy and got down to the important business of building McMansions, strip malls, and maybe adding another lane to the interstate, as local air quality can attest.
Thirty years later, with gas prices rising relentlessly toward $4 a gallon, wobbly financial markets, and fears of a recession looming, I’m happy to see the city finally starting to get serious about the subject of energy conservation. First, the city launched its Energy and Sustainability Initiative to develop a strategic plan for increasing energy efficiency and the utilization of renewable energy. And last week came the plan’s first big dividend when Knoxville was selected as one of 12 cities to receive a $200,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s “Solar Cities” initiative to help integrate solar energy technologies throughout the city.
Not that the city waited for funding in order to act. Not only is the new transit center already being designed to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s silver certification standard for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), solar technology will also be integrated into the plans (a factor that may have helped Knoxville secure the DOE’s Solar Cities grant). Meanwhile, funding from Knoxville’s Empowerment Zone is also being put towards construction of seven LEED-certified homes in Five Points. Using as much as 50 percent less energy than similar-sized homes, these houses developed by Knox Housing Partnership will not only have affordably priced mortgages, but they’ll have lower utility bills, too.
LEED certification isn’t the only thing that makes these new homes environmentally sound. For starters, since they’re in the center city, their owners will also have ample opportunity to access public transit, cutting their carbon emissions and saving themselves the need to fork over $3 or more for a gallon of fuel. (How’s that for affordable housing?) And since they’re being built on vacant lots within an existing neighborhood served by existing infrastructure, they’ll have far less impact on both the environment and the public coffers than similar homes built on a greenfield site (their affordable subsidy pales in comparison to the cost of providing roads, schools, and other services to new development on the suburban fringe).
Frankly, even with the LEED certification, these homes might have been more eco-friendly if, instead of building new on vacant lots, the old homes on those lots had never been torn down in the first place. A recent study conducted by Britain’s Empty Homes Agency concludes that renovating an existing home saves as much as 35 metric tons of carbon dioxide compared to comparable new construction, mostly by reducing the need for new materials and the energy consumed by their production. Well-insulated new homes will eventually make up the difference due to lower operational CO2 emissions, but it can take decades, often over 50 years. Even more interesting, once the initial savings of refurbishment are factored in, the long-term CO2 emissions of new built and refurbished homes are essentially the same. So the next time you see a dumpster land in front of a Fourth and Gill Victorian, or scaffolding going up in front of an old building on Gay Street, don’t think of it as gentrification; consider it good for the environment. m