North Texas may be in the early stages of a green awakening.
Local businesses selling Earth-friendly products and services say they're doing well despite the general downturn. City governments are boosting purchases of clean, renewable power. Planners and developers are working to limit suburban sprawl.
And at Cedar Valley College in Lancaster, Shahed Mustafa's students are learning to make a living by analyzing homes' energy use to cut power demands, utility bills and pollution. As they chase down every wasted watt, they'll also be changing minds.
"It's retraining our way of thinking, retraining our lifestyle," said Mustafa, an engineer and Cedar Valley instructor.
Apart from showing green-job growth – the college's last two sessions for solar technicians were full – such programs may signal a shift in the region's attitudes.
"I think we're at the beginning of a new era in the North Central Texas region – looking collectively at how to improve this entire urban area," said Todd Spinks, director of the University of North Texas' Office of Sustainability. UNT President Gretchen M. Bataille created the office last year to reduce the school's environmental impact and share ideas with the larger community.
"It's a change in the mind-set," Spinks said.
It's not a revolution yet. The region hasn't thrown off its reputation as a sprawling complex of far-flung suburbs and concrete-lined creeks.
Traffic is still stationary many mornings and evenings; no commuter would be surprised by the "F" rating, indicating severe, daily delays, that traffic engineers give many highway stretches in Dallas, Collin, Denton and Tarrant counties.
And there's still that smog.
Signs of improvement However, there are signs of change.
The city of Dallas is setting an example with its shift to hybrids and other low-emission vehicles and its purchases of renewable energy. Dallas buys nearly 334 million kilowatt-hours of wind-generated electricity each year – 12th among U.S. renewable power purchasers and second among local governments nationwide, behind Houston.
Dallas' new green building code, which took effect Oct. 1, has been called the nation's toughest. When it's fully implemented in 2011, the code will cut power and water consumption of new construction and major renovations by 15 percent.
Local cities are working with colleges, planners and one another on options for sustainable development. A voluntary public-private regional initiative, Vision North Texas, seeks to limit future sprawl and increase green space across 16 North Texas counties.
Adding to the green mix are more DART rail expansions and a growing number of local businesses selling products or services oriented toward a better environment.
Local interest in job training for environmentally benign building and energy soared when President Barack Obama put a green tinge on the economic stimulus package. Suddenly, there was money to be made from saving energy or getting it from cleaner sources.
"It's on everybody's lips," said Pat Davis, Cedar Valley College's director of community development.
Last month, a White House report said today's technology could cut energy use by 40 percent per home, saving 160 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions and $21 billion in energy bills per year.
Energy-saving services aren't widely enough available, the report said, in part because of a lack of skilled workers. The White House outlined strategies to boost training and new jobs in energy savings.
Students signed up at Cedar Valley to learn weatherization, retrofitting of buildings, energy auditing and solar installation. "The programs and initiatives that we're doing clearly relate to emissions," said Pam Daniel of the college's Sustainable Communities Institute. "That is a theme throughout the training: The less energy that home uses, the smaller the carbon footprint."
The goal is also to make the region more livable, from shortening commutes to fostering more nature in neighborhoods.
"There's much more than just trying to change out your vehicle fleet or reducing your energy demand," said Spinks, who worked for the EPA before joining UNT. "A lot of that is just working with constituents to provide food for thought – to get them to start thinking about their day-to-day activities, to change behavior.
"Hopefully, we'll find in a generation or two that that's much more effective than focusing on one environmental stressor at a time."
Pushing for change
Tom Kemper says he's seeing change sooner than that. Kemper owns Dolphin Blue, a Dallas company that sells office products made with recycled materials. The company donates part of its profits to environmental organizations.
Dolphin Blue has prospered during the recession, Kemper said – evidence that demand for greener goods has taken root.
There are shortfalls, however. Kemper was chairman of Sustainable Dallas, a nonprofit, volunteer group that held annual conferences starting in the late 1990s to unite local environmentalists, business people and government officials.
The group generated lots of attention for a while, but said in August that it would dissolve because it couldn't find anyone to run the organization.
Kemper also found that official commitment to sustainable development and green building doesn't always reach the bureaucracy. When he tore down his Dallas home's garage and showed city building inspectors his plans for replacing it using sustainable methods and materials, he said, city inspectors were skeptical.
"I had huge obstacles in trying to get people to understand," Kemper said.
Kemper eventually prevailed, and overall he thinks there's more good local news than bad.
"A lot of things are being done right. I think we're on the path. We're seeing a small portion of the population really pushing hard to become a sustainable community."
The smog factor
Sustainable development, according to the landmark 1987 U.N. report "Our Common Future," means meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" – in short, running the economy without degrading the environment.
North Texas' smog shows how hard that can be.
Three times since 1987, the EPA has lowered the amount of ozone allowed in the air, responding to advancing knowledge of smog's health effects. Each time, North Texas has been unable to meet the new, tighter standards.
About 73 percent of smog-causing emissions in North Texas come from vehicles. Industries account for 15 percent, while miscellaneous small sources make up 11 percent.
Measuring ozone the way the EPA does it, by averaging levels over three-year spans, ozone dropped in most North Texas communities by 6 to 10 percent between 2005-2007 and 2007-2009, an analysis by The Dallas Morning News shows.
That's not enough to comply with the latest limit, which the Bush administration's EPA imposed last year.
If the Obama administration, as expected, lowers the limit again in December, North Texas might have to cut ozone 16 percent to 25 percent from current levels, The News found.
With business as usual – tighter limits on industries, state incentives for cleaner diesel engines and reliance on new federal rules on clean fuels and vehicles – that might be an unattainable goal, given recent history.
Some people are talking about a new way of doing the business of clean air.
A new attitude
One of them is Jackson Murphy. He is the president of Green Bean Analysis LLC, a Dallas-based consulting company that does financial and related studies on renewable energy and green building. He offers clients "triple bottom line solutions: people, planet, profit."
Murphy said North Texas is changing its mind about environmental responsibility.
"Alternative energy purchasing by the cities, companies and us as consumers on an individual level is using market forces to move us in the right direction," Murphy said. Cleaner energy costs fractionally more, he acknowledged. "I think we can handle that in order to get the benefits of clean air – the improved health."
Dirty air costs money, too.
Business people paid attention in 2001, when Boeing chose Chicago over Dallas for its new corporate home, and in 2003, when Toyota decided to build its truck plant in San Antonio instead of North Texas. Many North Texas leaders have said they believe the region's dirty air played a role in each case.
The cost of smog in doctor's and emergency room visits and lost work days is also part of the equation.
In 2001, a study of Houston's ozone by Harvard School of Public Health estimated that for every reduction of 0.51 parts per billion in ozone, society saves about $10 per person per year – nearly $63 million for a metro area the size of Dallas-Fort Worth.
Applying the same formula to North Texas, slashing ozone enough to meet the expected new federal standard might save the region up to $2.6 billion a year in health and related costs.
If cleaner air lures employers, keeps people healthy and spares unneeded health expenses, Murphy said, saving energy as part of a more sustainable North Texas makes economic sense.
"One of the ways to continue that is to embrace green, sustainable development as a region," he said.
"If that attitude – and it's a big if – if that attitude can be embraced here, if we embrace green business all the way from Austin to Dallas and Fort Worth, and we get the universities involved, the investment banking community involved, that is a game changer.
"You can get clean air out of that."