Thursday, January 19, 2006

Do daylighted schools make kids smarter?

Tonight's sustainable energy forum put on by Chapel Hill's Neighborhoods for Responsible Growth was a big success--standing room only. The emphasis was on solar power as the most responsible choice for the future, though not the only one.

Larry Shirley, director of the State Energy Office, sang the praises of biomass resources: bioethanol (which can be made from switchgrass); biodiesel, which is being produced locally already; and methane, which can be extracted from old landfills. Electricity can be produced from biomass, including hog waste, poultry litter, crop residue, and mill and forest residue. "We think biomass is going to have excellent employment potential through the state," Shirley said, especially in rural areas. North Carolina also has reasonable capacity to host windmill farms, he said.

Tom Henkel got into the nuts and bolts of solar power. Solar water heating is the easiest to accomplish now, resulting in more savings than you might realize. Dr. Henkel even praised the solar clothes dryer. (We used to have one of those till a hurricane took it out.)

Richard Harkrader, policy committee chair of the NC Sustainable Energy Association, is an architect and contractor who has moved into green energy by way of keeping a keen eye on utilities regulation as part of the problem:

Both Duke and Progress predict energy growth on average a little less than 2 percent a year. We can take that down to zero. But unfortunately we aren't going to get there under the system we have now, the system of utility regulation. Green is all of these things. The principal barrier we have to getting there right now is the way the system is set up. Utilities get a franchise, a "natural monopoly." We don't want competing wires down the streets. So they get this and we say, your obligation is to provide energy in this service territory, reliable and cheap. And that's what we've been concentrating on, reliable and cheap. . . . There's a big disencentive for building small power plants close to where people work and live. The mindset is, the population is growing, we're all going to need more energy; therefore build more power plants. Unless we find a way to change that system, that's what we're going to get.

On the positive side, he believes North Carolina is positioned very well right now for an "explosion" of green energy--potentially up there with New Jersey and California and New York.

But architect Mike Nicklas brought the most surprising news: schools built on daylighting principles, like Smith Middle School, which his firm designed, actually make kids smarter. They do better on tests. There is data to show it. Why is that? Two reasons, seemingly contradictory, he said. Students and teacher say they feel both "calmed" and "stimulated." The "calmed" has to do with no fluorescent lights. The "stimulated" has to do with the fact that the weather outside changes, and your body reacts to that.

What a bright idea!

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