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Tina Casey headshot

ConEdison Study Reveals New Roles for Green Roofs

By now it's become widely accepted that green roofs can help reduce heating and cooling costs for buildings, and evidence is mounting that they can provide tangible benefits in other areas as well. The latest piece of information comes from New York, for a green roof constructed by ConEdison, the city's electric utility. The study, conducted in partnership with the Columbia University Center for Climate Systems Research, reveals that green roofs could play a much larger than role than previously expected in helping cities find cost effective ways to deal with excess storm water. That, in turn, provides building owners with new opportunities to participate in urban sustainability planning. Stormwater Runoff and Combined Sewer Overflows

Stormwater runoff from urban areas is is significant source of pollution in nearby waterways. In older cities with combined sewer systems like New York, the problem is compounded because the normal flow of sanitary waste from buildings commingles with stormwater and snow melt from streets. Most treatment plants have enough capacity to handle some of the excess, but in heavy weather some of the excess flow has to be shunted directly into nearby waterways. In recent years the city has employed a variety of strategies to reduce these events, called "combined sewer overflows." This includes the construction of large - and expensive - underground holding tanks.

The Green Roof Solution

New York has also explored the use of green roofs to trap excess stormwater, but previous studies suggested that this was not a cost-effective approach compared to other solutions. For this reason, the 2008 version of the city's sustainability master plan, PlaNYC, gave green roofs an unfavorable cost-benefit ranking  in terms of reducing combined sewer overflows. However, the new Con Edison green roof study (pdf) reveals just the opposite. The researchers determined that the roof was trapping about 22 times more stormwater on an annual basis than was previously thought possible, making it the most cost-effective solution available.

The Green Roof Advantage

The researchers point out that green roofs have a distinct advantage over holding tanks and other infrastructure. Holding tanks simply capture excess flow, which is eventually sent to a treatment plant. In contrast, the excess flow captured by green roofs eventually evaporates or is absorbed by its vegitation, so it never enters the treatment system at all. That helps  to reduce energy consumption and other costs related to treatment systems.

Buildings and Sustainability Planning

Conventional stormwater holding facilities are not only expensive, but they can also be extremely difficult to site and build in developed areas. In cities where the cost-effectiveness of green roofs is borne out, planners have a fiscal justification to support green roofs with incentives for building owners. When added to the other benefits of green roofs, that makes an attractive package. Communities save on stormwater and wastewater management costs, and they also gain from the ability of green roofs to trap air pollutants and reduce the urban "heat island" effect. Green roofs can also perform a civic role as green jobs training facilities, urban nature conservation, and environmental education centers, an approach that the U.S. military has begun to explore.

Businesses and Green Roofs

Triple Pundit has pointed out elsewhere that green roofs involve varying degrees of tending, so they are not the kind of improvement you'd make to "flip" a building. However, the long term benefits add up. Building owners gain a roof treatment that has a longer life cycle than conventional roofs, and it can also help attract desirable tenants. Food-related businesses can reap direct benefits from green roofs with an ultra-local, ultra-fresh source of produce. In addition to creating an attractive space for customers and clients, green roofs can also provide an employee perk that enhances morale and wellness. As the world's population grows, green roofs enable building owners and businesses to pack more resources into densely packed urban spaces, benefiting communities as well as the bottom line.

Image: Green roof by 416style on flickr.com.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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