Going Green Is Something Langley Has Done for a Long Time
By: Jim Hodges

The months-old push for employee involvement in a greener NASA Langley has tended to obscure years-old efforts by the center to be environmentally friendly.

"I was green when green wasn't cool," said Greg Sullivan, head of Langley's Environmental and Logistics branch and a fan of the country music of Barbara Mandrell and George Jones.

"I've been at this for 35 years. But the kinds of things we do are routine things: disposal of hazardous waste; we've been recycling since the early 1990s; remediation work. It's not as glamorous as putting solar panels out in space and beaming energy back to Earth, but it's important nonetheless."

Trash -- Langley going green.

In the Refuse-Fired Steam Generating Facility, garbage from Peninsula cities, NASA Langley, Langley Air Force Base and Northrop Grumman Shipyard is burned. The 2,200-2,300 degree flame it generates fires a generator that provides as much as 70 percent of the steam used in the center. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

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George Finelli, Langley's center operations director, agreed.

"NASA hasn't been sleeping," he said. "Pretty much everything we do that can impact the environment or use of energy or waste disposal or conservation, considerations are built into our work."

That's apparent at the recycling center in Building 1181, where Bryan Beltinck and James Slater bring collected paper and cardboard, then bail it separately with a machine to resell to recyclers.

It's as apparent in the Refuse-Fired Steam Generating Facility, which is run by the city of Hampton on Langley property and provides about 70 percent of the steam for the center. To do so, it burns garbage from Peninsula cities, NASA Langley, Langley Air Force Base and the Northrop Grumman shipyard.

It's apparent in the trucks that leave the center laden with rubble from what used to be offices and laboratories and warehouses. About 4.8 million pounds of construction and demolition debris was recycled within the past year.

"We've really been in a push the last four years to get rid of old trailers, to get rid of inefficient buildings," Finelli said. "We've torn down 13 buildings in the last nine months. Some of it is just getting rid of inefficient things that we have semi-abandoned and stopped maintaining and have been waiting to get money to get rid of.

Langley going green.

In Building 1181, recyclable material is sorted. In the past year, NASA Langley recycled 330 tons of waste, 43 tons of bailed white paper alone. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

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"It's the right thing and it's the cost-effective thing to do."

And "going green" is apparent in the on-going negotiations with architects of New Town, the six-building proposal for a new Langley that has as its goal, gold status in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System.

Points toward that are earned for everything from lighting in the interior of the building, environmentally sound heating and air conditioning, water conservation, building on the site of another building that was torn down, even for encouraging mass transportation or any other means of getting around that doesn’t involve driving a car.

Some points are hard, involving a trade of features to stay within the budget.

"The bottom line is that there is a cost to implement more," Finelli said. "It's like how luxurious a car do you want? Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying save a penny and be environmentally unfriendly. But there is a cost to getting more points."

Other points are easier.

"You get a point for putting in a shower and a bike rack out front," said Bob Charles, the center's energy manager.

New Town and LEED have been in lockstep.

"Since we started looking at New Town, we've been looking at LEED," said Bruce Bishop, deputy project manager of New Town. "We've also been looking at demolitions. In the past, we'd just put it on a truck and haul it off to the landfill. Now you separate the concrete, separate the steel, separate everything. Whatever can be recycled is recycled."

The push has been going for about three years. "One of the selling points in the business case of New Town is that for every square foot we build, we're tearing down 1 ½ feet," Finelli said.

That's why Lesa Roe, Langley's center director, says New Town eventually pays for itself.

While some in Center Operations deal with New Town and tearing down buildings for the future, others keep conservation efforts going that have been underway for years.

Dave Steigerwald oversees recycle operations in Building 1181.

"The current solid waste and recycling program is very successful overall," said Steigerwald, an SAIC contractor. "It's important for all employees to understand the environmental and economical benefits of an effective recycling program at the center."

In one corner part of the building, paper is fed into a machine, which bails it for sale to recyclers. Elsewhere, fluorescent light bulbs are fed to a crusher, and mercury is extracted from the lot.

Scrap metal goes to yet another recycler. Batteries. Oil. Antifreeze. Toner cartridges. Plastic. A building across a parking lot from 1181 stores hazardous waste prior to transport and disposal.

"The majority of recycled material goes through that facility out there," Sullivan said.

The numbers are staggering.

In the last fiscal year, Langley recycled more than 330 tons of waste, more than 43 tons of white paper alone. About 77 percent of all waste disposed of was recycled. There's no profit in it, but between $20,000 and $30,000 in center revenue is gleaned, cutting the cost of overall disposal.

And this has been going on, in some instances, for 15 years.

Not far from Building 1181, fronting on Wythe Creek Road, the steam plant uses trash to fire a steam-generation system for the center. A 24-hour operation uses two burners and conveyor belts to keep the garbage flowing to combustion.

"It burns at about 2,200-2,300 degrees," said Mike Croft, the plant's operations manager and an employee of the city of Hampton, which runs the steam plant.

From 72,000 tons of refuse every year, the plant generates about 70 percent of Langley's steam requirement for heating and cooling facilities and some laboratory work. About 92 tons of metal are plucked from the trash each month.

Other ideas for environmentally sound operation come in weekly from the center's "going green" Web site, attached to @LARC. They are reviewed and balanced against programs that are already underway, and also against the center's budget.

" 'Green' encompasses renewable energy: wind power, solar power, geothermal," Charles said. "Unfortunately, those aren't cost effective for us to use at this time. As the price for those technologies comes down, more and more people will buy those energy sources."

Increased power costs could come into play. Langley pays $7-8 million a year for electricity.

"As our electricity rates go up over the years, and as manufacturing costs of other energy sources go down, it might become more cost effective to use more renewable energy sources," Charles said.

Added Finelli: "When you have a lot to do, you want to make sure you're doing the things that have the biggest payoff."

It's an axiom of management, one that drives most government operations. At the same time, NASA is a different sort of government agency. With its investment in research, it's expected to set an environmental standard.

"We are leaders in technology and innovation," Sullivan said, "so I think more is expected of NASA."

The mission now, then, is to meet those expectations.

NASA Langley Research Center
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Lineberry