It’s not this simple, of course, but if you squint hard enough the entire green building enterprise can at times seem like a conflict between what’s cool/sellable and what works. There is, of course, a sizable area of overlap between the two — sizable enough to include the retrofitted Empire State Building and aesthetically aggressive luxury rentals, so it’s pretty sizable. But your less-sexy sustainabilities have a tougher go of it than do your more aesthetically pleasing ones — I make a big show of how much I love insulation (I sent these guys a dozen roses for Valentine’s Day), but had a much easier time finding 900 words of devotion for green roofs, because green roofs are prettier.
In “Green Metropolis,” David Owen identified the tendency to see green building elements as things to add on — rather than as areas in which to conserve or use less — as “LEED Brain.” But this obtains even if third-party certification isn’t in the mix; it’s a very human (and especially a very American) way to see the challenges of sustainability. We can see the things we add on, be they a cherry-on-top wind turbine or solar panels or the like symbolic like; we can’t see the subtler things we reuse or improve or remove, even though they can deliver savings on a similar or greater scale. Which leads to a sort of conundrum for individuals and communities that recognize both the necessity and the virtue of using less — that conundrum being whether or not we can care enough about the un-glamorous side of sustainability enough to actually implement it, even when it’s frankly a little gross. Even when it smells, and you’ll have to pardon me here, like farts.
I know, I know. But that is what the Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant in Greenpoint smells like, and anyone who has been in its proximity knows this to be true. New York City produces 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater and 1,200 pounds of (um) sludge every day, and needs to treat it, which means that things like Newtown Creek don’t even qualify as necessary evils — they’re just plain necessary. What is kind of evil, or at the very least unpleasant, is the way that process smells, thanks to all the methane gas that escapes during the process of treating all that sewage. There is a another, metaphorical evil in all that funky-smelling gas, though — methane is not good for the atmosphere, and could also be put to better use as an energy source. Which is exactly what the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and National Grid are proposing to do with a planned methane plant located atop the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Plans are in the works for what could be a second such plant at the Wards Island wastewater facility.
“Like other cities around the country looking to reduce both the costs of sewage treatment and disposal and the heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted in the process, New York is beginning to look at its waste as an untapped resource,” Mireya Navarro writes in the New York Times. “Heating fuel can be extracted from sludge and butanol, an alternative fuel to gasoline, from the algae generated by wastewater. Sewage treatment plants could sell methane gas to provide power to homes. Such projects represent a more sustainable long-term approach to managing a wastewater treatment process that costs the city about $400 million annually, not including capital investments.”
At Inhabitat, Lori Zimmer gives the plant her seal of approval. “While it may elicit giggles, the methane processed in this new plant will remove 16,650 TONS of carbon dioxide from the air, and yield enough to heat 2,500 homes per year! All renewably,” she raves. It’s not quite that simple, of course — Greenpoint residents succeeded in stopping a planned transitional housing project for homeless men, and are reportedly not fully on-board with the plan to build a methane plant on what was originally slated to be a park. But it’s close enough to it to look like a good thing — an opportunity to reduce waste, improve air quality, and score the sort of subtle green victory that pays big dividends, even if there’s no dramatic edifice to admire.