The question of cost

One might be hard-pressed to find an outright advocate of energy-hogging homes, gas-guzzling cars and congested superhighways. Instead, most opposition to “green” initiatives seems to center on financial concerns.

“I like the idea of green buildings, but I’m not in favor of borrowing from our children’s futures to fund them,” said Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower during a brief discussion of green retrofits for municipal buildings at the Feb. 21 work session.

But Council member Robin Cape takes a different view. “To be penny-wise and pound-foolish is not really fiscal — sometimes, you make the right investments up front to save in the long run,” she said in a later interview. “If you’re not investing in yourselves, then you’re investing in somebody else. Who is it that we want to invest in — the power company?”

So how do the up-front costs stack up? A report released by California state agencies, titled “Managing the Cost of Green Buildings,” found that LEED-certified structures cost between 2.5 percent and 9 percent more to build, depending on the level of certification. But a report titled “Green Building Costs and Financial Benefits,” written for Boston’s Green Building Task Force, concluded that such structures reduce energy use by an average of 30 percent. And for a 100,000 square foot state office building, that could mean savings of $60,000 per year, the report notes.

On a somewhat less tangible front, Asheville’s 15-mile greenway system will cost an estimated $100,000 per mile, according to Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson reports. The city shouldered 20 percent of the cost of the five miles completed to date, with grants from foundations and the N.C. Department of Transportation picking up the rest. And while the immediate benefits of greenways — cleaner air and waterways, and enhanced recreational opportunities — may be harder to quantify, they can result in lower health-care costs for residents and can assist in industrial recruitment, proponents say.

Compressed-natural-gas-powered vehicles, meanwhile, cost 20 to 25 percent more than their conventional counterparts. The city’s CNG station was funded by a $400,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. But people buying these vehicles can qualify for tax credits of up to 80 percent. And if the trend catches on, the potential benefits in terms of enhanced air quality (and, by extension, lower health-care costs) could be significant.

“Generally, the natural-gas Honda is the cleanest-burning combustion engine on the planet, with emissions reductions at about 90 percent,” says city Fleet Manager Chris Dobbins. And at this writing, CNG is going for $1.74 a gallon — substantially lower than gasoline. (For veggie-oil users who aren’t recycling straight grease from restaurant dumpsters, fueling up a car on biodiesel currently costs about $3 a gallon.)

The controversy over green initiatives doesn’t always focus on up-front costs, however — sometimes, it’s hidden costs that draw fire. A classic argument for greening up homes, for example, is the resulting increase in property value. But some affordable-housing advocates worry about the unintended consequences of gentrification. As neighborhoods go greener, low-income residents can get priced out. At a Feb. 18 urban-design conference in Raleigh, presentations on greening neighborhoods with bike paths, green spaces and efforts to relieve traffic congestion were countered more than once with a suspicious response: “What are you going to do about gentrification in those areas?”

But some community organizations have partnered with green firms to address those concerns head-on. One such is Prospect Terrace in Asheville, an affordable-housing development spearheaded by Mountain Housing Opportunities.

“It’s definitely a lot easier for someone with unlimited resources to build green with features like solar panels and radiant floor heat than to try and incorporate those systems into affordable-housing units,” says MHO Home Ownership Manager Mike Vance. But green building doesn’t have to be incompatible with affordability, he continues, noting that such measures can make housing more affordable by reducing ongoing utility-and-maintenance costs. The nonprofit has committed to make all of its affordable single-family units Energy Star-certified.

Vance also sees the economic picture shifting as green building becomes more mainstream. “That momentum will help to lower costs down the road, as contractors become more comfortable with these systems and materials,” he predicts. “That’s the exciting part about being in Asheville right now.”

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