Understanding Green Technology's Real-World Implications

The Urban Living Lab will show real-world implications of energy-efficient technology.
January 2011
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

Last year, my local grocery store eliminated disposable plastic shopping bags and encouraged customers to either bring their own or purchase reusable bags during checkout. Thus, I joined a growing army of consumers who keep a supply of reusable bags at home or in the car -- and struggle to remember to bring them into the store.

It took some adjustment, but I ultimately feel good about the transition. Every time I reuse a bag, a little less garbage ends up in the local landfill or blowing down the street. But how much good am I actually doing? Critics scoff at these initiatives’ impact, contending that disposable bags account for just a tiny fraction of consumer waste -- not to mention the fact that importing reusable bags thousands of miles from China leaves its own harmful environmental footprint.

Grasping the impact of energy-efficient products can be equally challenging. Scientist Jeff Tsao, along with a handful of colleagues from Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, recently predicted that the introduction of superefficient light-emitting diode (LED) lighting could actually increase energy use -- even though the technology itself uses less power than incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. That’s because throughout history, breakthroughs in lighting technology have stimulated demand for light, resulting in more energy being consumed instead of less. In a recent article for the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Tsao and his colleagues predict that LED technology could lead to a substantial increase in global demand for light over the next 20 years -- albeit with accompanying gains in human productivity and quality of life.

Understanding the real-world implications of energy-efficient technology is one goal of a fascinating experiment set to break ground later this year. The Texas A&M University System and a Dallas-area developer are creating a 1.1-million-square-foot sustainable community 15 miles north of downtown Dallas. Dubbed the Urban Living Laboratory, the community will consist of 800 apartments, retail space, hotels, office buildings, farmers markets and community gardens. A wide range of green technologies -- from appliances to lighting systems to landscapes -- will be monitored over a 50- to 75-year period.

The test-tube community will allow researchers to collect data on energy conservation in an urban setting and let them monitor how humans actually react to green technologies. Information collected over the five decades will be available to local, state and federal agencies -- giving public policymakers practical insight into the effectiveness of sustainable technologies and strategies.

“We’d like for government agencies to understand the benefits and get involved in the projects so that as government agencies build new buildings … they will consider the technologies that we will be testing,” Allan Jones, associate director of the university’s AgriLife Center in Dallas, told Government Technology magazine.

Jones says the $127 million project will take three to seven years to build, depending on how quickly the economy recovers. Groundbreaking is scheduled for late 2011, and more than 20 companies already have signed on to test green products in the homes.

As communities become more serious about sustainability, projects like the Urban Living Laboratory should give planners and decision-makers a better understanding of how humans interact with green products and initiatives -- ultimately leading to more effective sustainability policies.

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to remember my reusable bags when I go shopping.