What the PVC report and TXU buyout portend

August 11, 2010

Two recent events—the release of a U.S. Green Building Council report on PVC, and the involvement of two high-profile environmental groups in the proposed purchase of energy giant TXU Corp.—spell big news for those involved in green building and climate change.

The USGBC’s “final” PVC report—a misnomer, since it won’t really be the last word—had been languishing in its Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee for two years. The five TSAC committee members obviously struggled to weigh the public comments generated by a draft report that found vinyl to be no worse for the environment or human health than certain other commonly used building materials.

The vinyl issue has been hanging over the USGBC for years, ever since the committee drafting LEED for Commercial Interiors tried to outlaw PVC in LEED. Technically speaking, the USGBC does not certify the greenness of building products, although through LEED it does “encourage” things like low-VOC paints and “rapidly renewable” products like strawboard.

The new report raised the issue of whether the burning of PVC scrap in backyard or landfill fires could lead to the release of harmful dioxins. The Vinyl Institute, the trade group representing PVC, issued a statement saying landfill fires are “extremely rare.” The Healthy Building Network, an environmental advocacy group and staunch opponent of vinyl, countered with a U.S. Fire Administration report which stated that there are 8,400 dump and landfill fires a year. Yet nowhere does the USFA report (or an EPA report that it refers to) mention PVC or vinyl. There’s a lot more danger to the public from methane gas being released from landfills.

TSAC chair Malcolm Lewis stated that the essential question before the committee was whether PVC-based materials were “consistently among the worst of the alternative materials studied in terms of environmental and health impacts.” The conclusion, said Lewis, was that “a simple yes or no answer to this question was not adequate, and a more nuanced answer which points the way to dealing with some larger issues was essential.” The TSAC then handed the hot potato over to the full LEED Steering Committee for “further research.”

On the more upbeat side is the news of the $45 billion buyout of TXU, a Dallas-based electric utility, by private equity investors. The remarkable thing about this proposed buyout (which will require approval from TXU shareholders and various Texas and federal agencies) is that the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense served as consultants to the buyout team.

The key to the deal: TXU will not build eight of the 11 coal-fired power plants it had on the boards. Instead, the utility will purchase 1,500 MW of wind energy, give rebates to customers using solar power, and cap carbon dioxide emissions.

The TXU deal isn’t perfect, as the environmental groups acknowledged. Three of the coal-fired plants will still be built. That leaves another hundred or so new coal-fired plants in the works elsewhere in the U.S. But the TXU buyout sends a powerful message to utilities around the country that business as usual is over.


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