In megacities like Los Angeles, little tweaks make a big impact on a sustainable home

This week we’re hearing from Southern Californians who think about and work toward making homes sustainable. The University of Southern California runs a project that studies mega-cities – urban areas such as Los Angeles with populations of at least 10-million. More on regional sustainability from KPCC’s Molly Peterson.

Second in a three-part series
As an engineer, Jean Pierre Bardet tinkers with some very small items, like materials that can make Santa Anita’s racetrack more suitable for horses. He says that tweaking little problems can make a big difference in an enormous city. "Megacities are giving us these laboratories to test this economy of scale," he says. "They are the perfect laboratories for us to look at how we can take a small project and how we can scale it up."

Earlier this year, USC and the environmental nonprofit TreePeople convened a workshop about just that. Not surprisingly, in a region concerned with consumption, they talked about water. TreePeople captures rainwater at Coldwater Canyon Park. Jim Hardie is the guy at TreePeople, a volunteer who slides on a yellow rain slicker so he can check the cistern's fullness. "We've got a whole 216,000 gallons of rainfall right beneath us here. So shall I go get some?" He clanks down the access port, a tin bucket caroming off the ladder.

A rainwater capture system at one family’s house might only store 50 gallons of water at a time. That’s a drop in the sea. But Bardet points out that satellite photographs of Southern California’s coastline after rain show a plume of runoff in the ocean - and everything the water carries with it. "It’s like a dirty trace of water which goes into the ocean," he says. "Some regions now are aggressively retaining the water in their own regions. So the water instead of going to the ocean is actually retained and is recharging the groundwater table."

Another small project with a potentially big impact, Bardet says, is keeping better track of home energy use. This year Southern California Edison installed the first of 5-million smart meters: using wireless radio, the meters allow people to automate their home appliances. The meters share consumption information within homes and with the utility. "You could actually have your meters to give you information on how to reduce your consumptions," says Bardet. "We would give you the options of making a decision about the way you produce energy and use carbon."

Bardet says smart metering is an example of an idea where putting more information in someone’s hands will enable them to make a different decision. But will it always enable them to make a better decision? He hopes so. "Well, we have to understand everybody has their own free will. I think we have to combine both pricing policies with information. We cannot escape modern societies. And I do believe yes," he says with a shrug.

Critics argue that smart meters aren’t worth what homeowners will pay for them right now. Bardet says that idea and others at the runs a project that studies mega-cities USC mega-cities program focus on doing more with data we already have and things we already know. "We are a country where information is widespread, we live in the era of the Internet," he says. "Maybe we should use it to the benefit of our cities."

Bardet is confident that people can’t make sustainable homes unless they think about problems across an entire region. But he adds that it’s impossible to improve the environment on a mega-city scale without starting in just one house.

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