Psst: Cincinnati's greener than you think

Brewster Rhoads isn’t sure why people don’t associate green progressivism with Cincinnati. 

They should, he says, pointing to program after program and person after person who are working together to advance and advocate for energy efficiency programs, green building technologies and cutting edge innovations throughout the region. In fact, he ticks off so many efforts — in so many pockets of the city and the region — it is impossible to keep up.

“There is such an excitement about the movement in Greater Cincinnati to be the cutting edge green city, that it’s palatable,’’ says Rhoads,  the executive director the Green Umbrella, the regional sustainability alliance made up of 146 dues paying organizations. “It is business people, governmental entities, educators, corporations, nonprofits.

“This is not a bunch of tree huggers sharing a granola bar,’’ he quips. 

Rather, this is smart business. Creating green, sustainable and renewable environments translates into jobs and makes the region able to attract and retain talent. 

Green Umbrella interns working with the non-profit’s board members are in the midst of what Rhoads calls the Top 100 Project, which is a compilation of the “100 things that make us greener than you think.”

Here are four green “firsts” to be proud of (and to hold us over until the Top 100 Project is complete):

1. First natural technology system that processes wastewater so cleanly that it is discharged into surface waters.

The Cincinnati Nature Center, in Clermont County, installed the Algaewheel wastewater treatment solution --- known affectionately as the “poop processor” – to replace deteriorating septic systems that served Rowe Woods Visitor Center and Krippendorf Lodge about two years ago, says Kristi Masterson, the Center’s director of marketing. 

The multi-step system uses a process that combines algae with bacteria to feed off of each other to break down waste. The system requires 50 to 75 percent less energy to operate than conventional system. It generates 95 percent less solids and, unlike conventional systems that produce high levels of carbon dioxide, the system enables the treatment plant to become carbon neutral or even carbon negative. 

The clean water is then discharged into the Center’s stream completely clear, she says. 

“I know we are the first in Ohio to have this,’’ Masterson says, noting that representatives from many other cities and organizations tour the facility and look to the Center as a leader its use of the natural technology. “There will be a large national tour coming next year to take a look at this. We are very excited about that.”

Masterson says that there was also another unintended consequence of using the system: The Center converted to even greener cleaning systems for its facilities because the ones they were using had too much ammonia for the Algaewheel system to operate.

2. First Leave No Child Inside Initiative in the nation.

The initiative, founded by Betsy Townsend and Bill Hopple in 2007, was the first in the nation that heeded author Richard Louv’s call to reconnect children with nature. Louv’s 2005 influential book Last Child in the Woods brought together research that indicated the health of children is directly tied to their exposure to nature. 

There are now 108 Leave No Child Inside Initiatives across the nation, and they continue to expand as research continues to show that children – and adults – need to unplug and connect with nature for their emotional and physical health. 

Creating truly natural play areas – as simple as that sounds – is part of the effort. Last year, the Nature Center opened the largest Nature PlayScape in the nation. The Marge and Charles Schott Nature Playscape remains a national model of the Nature PlayScape Initiative to increase natural play areas for children. 

“I do think this is beginning to put us on the national platform. I go to national conventions and I hear all the time: ‘Wow, you guys are doing some really cool stuff there,”’ says Townsend, who is often consulted about Cincinnati’s work.  

3. The first commercial net zero energy retrofit in the nation and the first LEED Gold certified building in the state of Ohio.

Steve Melink, owner of Melink Industries, says it was a no-brainer to push his own company to go as green as possible years ago. Melink didn’t initially set out to create a company that can essentially live off the grid, but he achieved that last year. 
Melink’s headquarters in Milford is exporting as much power as it is importing from the grid – thus making it a net-zero energy user. He still needs energy from the grid on cloudy days and the solar panels are not generating enough power. But on sunny days, he is giving energy back.

“We thought, ‘Gosh we want to lead by example. How can we become a model for what we want our customers to become?’ ’’ he says. Now the company that created variable speed kitchen hoods that automatically turn off when not needed – thus saving untold amounts of energy and money – has also become a model showroom of energy-saving technologies: “We are a destination for anyone who wants to learn how to go super green.”

Melink’s headquarters was the first LEED Gold certified building in the state of the Ohio, then it earned LEED Platinum in 2010. And last year, they achieved the net zero energy distinction. 

They used a three-prong strategy to get there: conserving energy, installing energy-efficient mechanisms and turning to renewable energy sources, including solar panels, wind turbines, solar-thermal systems and wood pellet stoves.
LEED stands for Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design and incorporates rating systems for the design, construction and operations of green building, homes and neighborhoods. The system rankings start at Certified and escalate to the highest recognition of Platinum.  

Melink’s awards, distinctions and recognitions are nice, he says. But it is the unexpected outcomes that he points to. 

“What is most intriguing is that because of what we are doing, we are able to attract and retain a different breed of employee: One with vision and values … they are more productive and engaged.”

4. First architecture and engineering firm in the world to achieve LEED Platinum status.

Emersion Design
, of Norwood, much like Melink, wanted to lead by example, says owner Chad Edwards. 

So the architecture and engineering firm set out to prove they could create the greenest space that was extraordinarily designed at an affordable price. 

“If these are the things we expect from our clients, well, we needed to walk the walk,’’ Edwards says. “We knew that we were modest in size. We didn’t want to just hang with the big boys; we wanted to teach the big boys something … and in the architectural and engineering world, this is a big story to tell. It puts Cincinnati at the leadership table.”

Edwards, who has been on the United States Green Building Council board, has worked with Congress on green initiatives and is a frequent participant at national sustainability conferences. 

With that has brought business to the five-year-old firm that has done business in 14 states, with the United States Navy and Air Force as well as with the Army Corps of Engineers. 

“At the federal level, they understand our values,’’ he says. “This is a better use of taxpayer dollars.”

Attracting national attention means local jobs. “We are growing when others are shrinking. And it helps that we are able to hire the best of the best.”

Nationally, Edwards says, Cincinnati is known for its leadership. But he, too remains perplexed why folks here don’t recognize the efforts.

Maybe, just maybe, the Top 100 Project will change all that. 

Chris Graves
is assistant vice president of digital and social media at the Powers Agency.

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