Seeking 21st century Oregon trail pioneers to live the ultimate green dream


By Steven Ribeiro

In the State of Oregon, stories of pioneers who braved the elements of the wilderness to tame the United States’ idyllic northwestern corner are filled with much awe, mystique and historical fact.

Oregonians look back on their esteemed founders much like those in the new environmental movement, who look forward to cultures that will enjoy high standards of living while consuming just a small fraction of the energy that the average American consumes today. However, most environmental groups around the world anticipate a time when efficient use of renewable energy is the norm.

In 2009, Oregon pioneers are once again blazing a new trail. Independence Station, being constructed by Aldeia, LLC, is sited at the official end of the Old Oregon Trail in the small pioneer town of Independence, Oregon. A US$15 million, 57,000-squarefoot mixed use building, Independence Station will operate on 100% renewable energy, primarily the sun and waste vegetable oil. The building will host both real and virtual offices, residential units, a restaurant, an internet café, a green data storage facility, retail stores, research facilities and classroom space.


Artist’s impression of Independence Station
when completed

These 21st Century Oregon Trail pioneers, who will visit and live in the building when it opens next year, will demonstrate to the world that this utopian future is possible now. Their common purpose? To meet the 2,000-Watt Society’s aggressive year 2050 goal of using just 2,000 W of energy per person per day, or just 17 percent of the total lifestyle energy the typical American consumes today, including transportation. They will also be able to educate others in authentic, effective sustainability after a short stay. Resident owners will be able to conserve energy at this level while maintaining the high standard of living that is common in the US, minus the Ford F-150 of course. The data collected will be published for all to study, with the goal of realising new possibilities and setting new water and energy consumption benchmarks for the building industry. All this is accomplished with off-the-shelf components combined with the simple application of junior high school level physics and a bit of common sense.

Independence Station, expected to be known soon as the “World’s Greenest Building,” is aiming to be certified with the highest LEED score (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) ever awarded, aiming for a total of 64-66 points out of a possible 69. Currently, the LEED record holder is an impressive Canadian project. With the completion of Independence Station in late Spring 2010, the LEED high performance green building title should return to the United States, depending on the total number of LEED points actually awarded to this project.

Like any LEED-rated building, Independence Station will include and employ environmentally friendly elements and practices throughout construction, ranging from the earliest siting decisions to the last finishing details. But perhaps the biggest differentiator enabling the facility to be able to claim the World’s Greenest Building designation are its energy sources, energy storage methods and energy management systems. A combination of solar power and biomass conversion will allow the building to operate independently, store energy in several forms for later use, and even contribute power to the grid when the grid is most stressed during peak consumption times.

Independence Station will harness solar energy through a unique 120 kW installation of Solar World and SunPower photovoltaic panels. The SunPower panels will be used on the roof to conserve space to allow better access to the green roof plants in the open, which cool the roof for energy savings and extend the life of the roof. Other less sun tolerant plants will grow under the panels to help keep them cool in the hot summer months and maximise energy production.

The second group of panels from Solar World will provide a solar awning to cover a garage and parking lot, providing a unique visual backdrop to a planned second floor terrace slow food-themed restaurant. Connected to a massive battery system, the solar awning will power the data server room, provide power for the building and help charge electric cars at the 17 charging stations in the project. During certain emergency power situations, the electric cars themselves can supply energy back to the building if needed.

During sunny months, this combination of photovoltaic panels will produce more than enough energy to run the building, store extra energy in a large battery bank for nighttime use, and feed power back to the grid. During cool cloudy months when more heat is needed for the building, the waste vegetable oil cogeneration system will shoulder more of the load when the photovoltaic production is lower.

Even with a population of only about 8,500, Independence and its twin city Monmouth boast many restaurants. The town’s eateries produce more than enough waste fryer oil to power Independence Station in the colder months of the year. A biodiesel-fueled cogeneration system serves two primary purposes. Developed in cooperation with the Chemical Engineering Department of Oregon State University, the system transforms waste fryer oil into electricity and heat, providing power to the building. Additionally, the heat created by the process warms the building during the cool months. In the second phase of the project, a tri-generation system is planned. Naturally treated onsite wastewater will be vacuum distilled using the abundant heat from the cogeneration system and plumbed into the rainwater system for a total of three benefits from a single waste source. Even the surrounding city sidewalks, the outdoor restaurant, the third floor landscaped condo courtyard and private condo decks will be heated.

One of the generators is itself a testament to sustainable construction. A stout old Waukesha tug-boat engine, affectionately named “Mabel,” was recovered by a museum and subsequently sold to the project and converted into a backup generator fuelled by heated, straight, used fryer oil. The exhaust smells like a restaurant!


Independence Station
under construction

The rare ability to store power and energy means that Independence Station can maintain its independence, even on days when the sun isn’t shining brightly or even when the local grid goes down, as happened for three days in a Pacific Northwest ice storm. Extra energy is diverted to a large battery bank during those times when more heat is needed than electricity. It is then used to augment the power supply at night and on days when the sky is overcast. If the battery bank is full, this excess green power is sold to the local power grid.

Most of us don’t care that the hot water used for our morning showers was made the prior day, so why care that our cooling was made the prior evening? This is when electrical rates are low and power plant capacity is high. Independence Station will store energy in the form of ice in its large IceBank system at night, and then melt the ice for building cooling during peak electrical demand times the next day. This accomplishes “peak shaving” or “load shifting,” the heavy lifting to actually make the ice happening at night, so that during peak times on hot summer afternoons, Independence Station can sell clean photovoltaic power into the load stressed grid.

Originally, the four-storey elevator selected was a popular hydraulic design from a well known company, but it required 60 horsepower to lift a 4,500 lb elevator car. A little shopping at the big Greenbuild tradeshow yielded Kone, an elevator company with a new mechanical design that made much more sense, requiring just 12.5 horsepower for the same task at the same speed.

Who would guess that the lowest cost flooring available could lower the lighting bill and save heating and cooling costs? Just take a plain concrete slab and grind and polish with #1,500 grit paper to a gleaming permanent finish. This highly reflective finished flooring choice will allow natural daylight to penetrate deeper into the building and make the most of ultra efficient LED lighting at night. FGS Permashine has this system. PEX tubing loops encased in this brilliant floor deliver highly efficient radiant heating and cooling, long known as the ultimate in indoor climate comfort, via warm or cool water circulated as needed.

Where does the cool water come from? It will be imported for free. Pumped with siphon assist at a steady temperature of 54OC from a supply well just 35 feet under the parking lot, it will pass through a heat exchanger and every drop will be returned to another well located just over 100 feet away. Gravity will do most of the lifting once primed. The cool water will be borrowed for a minute or so to bring the earth’s natural cool temperature to every floor, and to all but one ceiling in the building. Add ultra high performance Alpen windows and gain the thermal mass, strength and acoustic isolation of ARXX insulated concrete forms and one has an unmatched building envelope.

A healthy building needs to be tightly sealed, but still breathe to keep oxygen levels up, purge pathogens and remove stale air. A heat recovery ventilation system makes this possible without losing energy by using the temperature from the exhaust air to pre-warm or pre-cool the incoming fresh outside air via a heat exchanger. When air conditioning is needed, a new system from Coolerado, provides an unheard of 5 tons of cooling power for just 600 W. Compared to this, conventional, dated, compressor driven air conditioning technology is nothing more than wasteful thermodynamics.

Independence Station will surround its residents with “green,” starting with the impressive 45-foot high vertical garden inside the main lobby. This “living wall,” covering the two exposed elevator shaft walls, will be filled with plants, some edible, which are watered through a system that collects and treats the abundant Willamette Valley rainwater. Collection systems are on the roof, and the collected rainwater will be filtered, stored, purified and separately plumbed to the laundry machines, toilets, hose spigots and irrigation systems around the building. Enough rainwater will be collected and stored in the wet winter months to supply these uses during all the dry summer months. Coupled with high quality low flow plumbing fixtures, Independence Station will have the lowest water use allowed by law. Additionally, slightly cooled fresh air will be gently diffused near the top of the living wall and gently cascade down and through the various types of plants that add oxygen and remove VOCs. This healthy air will then be drawn into a duct at the bottom of the living wall to be passed through a HEPA medical grade air filter, and then delivered to the high tech office space on the second floor via an efficient displacement ventilation system.

WiTricity is here. Yes, wireless electricity has arrived. Why plug your iPod or cellphone into the wall with a 40% efficient adapter when you can just set it down in the area of a WiTricity antenna and have 80% of the power charge the battery? This is being done already. Independence Station’s residents, office tenants and retail store owners will have a steady stream of the latest technology at their beta testing fingertips.


Artist’s impression of Independence Station
when completed

Residents will make the City a greener place, too, through their waste management habits. Kitchens in the project will be equipped with NatureMill automatic composters that will minimise food waste and create a rich soil additive. Residents and businesses will deposit daily food scraps into the top of the composters along with an occasional dose of sawdust and begin removing beautiful compost within two odour-free weeks. With each NatureMill’s ability to compost 120 pounds of food scraps each month, NatureMill composters could keep up to 10.5 tons of residents’ food scraps out of landfills each year. And at only 15 W of power draw, they will only use a token amount of the building’s solar and vegetable oil-generated power. The compost generated will be used for food production in the second phase of the project.

Independence Station’s goal is to spread these and many more green ideas far and wide, and not to protect the technology within its walls. Research facilities within the building will host University of Oregon scientists who are researching alternative energy solutions such as algal biodiesel. A biodiesel fuelled bus service will bring the public, tourists and professionals onsite to tour the building and take education courses of all types in the basement classroom. Educational sessions will not always focus on the environment – financial planning, English as a second language, and other life skills classes are planned for local citizens – but the building and its educational components will expose new audiences to the latest developments in conservation and adoption of renewable energy.

Are stereotypical granola crunching, tattooed, pierced, barefooted, tie-dyed, dreadlocked, pot smoking, tree-hugging druids in charge of the vision, design and construction of this building? The new environmentalists, motivated by selfless earth stewardship principles as well as the real desire to raise the standard of living for all, improve US national energy security, reduce the US trade deficit and build local economies are growing in number. This small, but growing crowd tends to walk the talk by actually doing effective things for the environment rather than just thinking bumper stickers are helping the cause while never really making personal lifestyle changes or actually changing the built environment.

Independence Station is ready to start interviewing interested certified energy efficiency nuts who are willing to invest to become living subjects in this amazing building. The technique of “hypermiling” cars to squeeze every last mile out of a gallon of gasoline is well known. This project is seeking “full lifestyle hypermilers” to set new worldwide benchmarks for energy and water consumption.