West Windsor resident Ed Haemmerle is a strong proponent of practicing what he preaches. And what he preaches has him slowly but surely transforming his house in an effort to make it completely carbon neutral.
For Haemmerle, a firefighter in Robbinsville by day, also has a construction business, which he has converted to a renewable energy focus. Lately he has been spending a lot of his time organizing the first GroWW (Greening of West Windsor) environmental fair, which takes place on Saturday, September 20, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the West Windsor Farmer’s Market at Vaughn Drive off Alexander Road. The event is hosted by the West Windsor Environmental Commission, the West Windsor Farmers Market, and FOWWOS (Friends of West Windsor Open Space).
The brainchild of West Windsor Township Councilwoman Heidi Kleinman, who chairs the fair, the event is meant to showcase the township’s environmental efforts, as well as local businesses with green initiatives. More than 50 exhibitors will line up on tables throughout the parking lot to provide environmental information and describe their particular approaches to curbing adverse climate change, reducing greenhouse gas, minimizing solid waste, and limiting the negative environmental impacts of everyday life.
Throughout the day, six different student groups from high schools North and South and two local garage bands will be providing background music. “These kids are working on getting the message out,” says Kleinman. “The idea is that they’re promoting green awareness through music, furthering the fair’s cause by providing enjoyable music for everyone present.”
The fair will feature appearances by various governmental officials, including Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, Senator Bill Baroni, Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, and West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, who will highlight the township’s environmental initiatives.
A panel of green living speakers, including representatives from the township’s Environmental Commission, will discuss ways to save energy, including using healthier cleaning products and composting.
The GroWW event will also feature hands-on activities, including an environmental scavenger hunt. “A lot of the exhibitors will have displays that are interactive,” Kleinman says. Residents will be encouraged to contribute their own ideas and will perhaps come away with some ideas after viewing an art showcase, “Recycle, Reuse, Reinvent,” organized by the West Windsor Library and the arts council.
While organizers of the event hope to educate residents about green practices, they will also be enabling them to get started, with a recycling program that will allow township residents to bring items to recycle that they might normally throw out. They will be able to donate or recycle items that are not part of the township’s bi-weekly recycling collection, such as used electronic, portable rechargeable batteries, used cell phones, used clothing, eyeglasses, and documents. A shredding truck will be on hand to dispose of the latter.
As the sun is setting on the fair, the West Windsor Arts Council will host a film event. “Manufactured Landscapes” will shown at 7:30 p.m. at the West Windsor branch of the Mercer County library. The film follows renowned artist Edward Burtynsky through China as he shoots the evidence and effects of the country’s massive industrial revolution. Following the film, artist and recent Fulbright scholar Aron Johnston, who lived in Bangalore, India, during 2007 and 2008, will speak on his research on the history and tradition of hand-painted signs.
Kleinman says she has one goal in running the event: “If everyone took away one thing that they could change in their life that would minimize their carbon footprint on the planet, I would think of this as successful.”
Haemmerle is doing a whole lot more than that. A graduate of the Hun School, he was accepted into Rider University, but chose to take a year off and never attended because it just wasn’t for him. He worked in various places, including a couple of years at CUH2A, an architectural engineering company, and as an EMT in Union City. He ultimately decided to become a firefighter, following three generations of firefighters on his mother’s side.
While Haemmerle says he has always been interested in sustainable development — his sister also has a degree in the field from Brown University — it was Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” that spurred him to transform his home and his business about a year ago.
“I saw that our future — not only our nation’s future, but the planet’s future — meant that we needed to change the way we use and produce energy, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor of doing it,” Haemmerle says. He started at ground level, and began to “chip away” in getting rid of everything that uses fossil fuels.
“The first thing anyone should do is conserve and reduce what they’re using in the first place,” Haemmerle says. He started to paying attention to turning the lights off. He then began replacing normal light bulbs with those that use low energy, creating a compost pile, and buying energy-efficient appliances.
From there, he sold his pickup truck and bought a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and installed a geothermal system in his home for heating and cooling and hot water. He even videotaped the whole installation process, turned it into a documentary to inform others how to do the same, and posted it on YouTube. He is looking next at installing solar panels, and eventually even a windmill, and he is working toward becoming certified to do so.
Because his house was built 55 years ago, it cannot be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, but he does want it to be completely energy neutral at some point. He no longer has a gas-fired furnace, and there are only three remaining appliances that use natural gas in his home — his barbecue grill, clothes dryer, and cook top. “I’m trying to convert everything to electricity,” he says. “I can’t make gas, and I can’t make oil, but I can make electricity. Everything is going to be electricity at some point.”
Haemmerle says he stopped treating his lawn with any type of fertilizer, and when he cuts it, he mulches the grass clippings instead of bagging it.
Moving on from his house, Haemmerle started to convert his construction business, making it a “green” business. “It’s twice as enjoyable when you can make money and do the right thing,” he says.
In addition to transforming his home and his business, Haemmerle has been working on his web site — www.njrenewableenergy.com — to show people what he has been doing, why he has been doing it, and to get them to join him. Originally created by using a basic web editing application on his iMac, Haemmerle says he is considering hiring someone to give the site a more professional look. In fact, his website is what drew Councilwoman Heidi Kleinman, one of the founders and organizers of the GroWW event, to ask for his involvement in the project, including maintaining the event’s website.
For Haemmerle, converting his house not only reduces his carbon footprint, but will also serve as a model to show clients of his business, who, in the future, might be interested in having him install some of these sustainable features. Haemmerle says he has already received a few phone calls from people who have asked him to install their geothermal systems.
One of the common reasons people give for not indulging in sustainable products is that they feel that it is too expensive, but Haemmerle says the industry is starting to change a corner to become more cost-effective. “Like anything, it has an up front cost,” Haemmerle says. “Over time it’s an investment that you’re putting into your house, to the earth, to everything. I’ll have my system paid for in six to seven years. Who buys an appliance and says, ‘When is it going to pay me back?’”
And when it comes to hybrid cars, people may question why someone would buy a hybrid when it costs $7,000 more — $7,000 that could be used toward purchasing gas, he says. “Everyone fails to calculate the fact that it’s destroying the earth,” he says. “Cheap oil has been what’s been holding us back. Finally, it’s caught up. As sad as it to say, I hope it goes up another dollar.”
He says there is not one answer to becoming more environmentally conscious. “We as a people, as Americans — to some point — many of us are arrogant,” he says. “We have to change the way we see ourselves and the way we do business.”
Haemmerle is waiting for the costs of solar panels to come down slightly more, and says that the panels are a better choice than windmills for residents in West Windsor because the area does not have a large amount of wind activity, compared with places near the ocean. “If I spend $9,000 to install a wind turbine, but save $200 a year, it doesn’t make much sense,” he says. “I can buy a solar panel that works 10 times better.” Still, he says he is looking to install the windmill in the future because he wants his house to be a model.
Another common misconception, says Haemmerle, is that purchasing environmentally friendly appliances or cars means that a person is “settling” for something that is of lesser quality. When, for example, a geothermal system, actually works five times better, and it saves money in heating and cooling costs. He says when he purchased his hybrid, many of his friends were shocked to see that the car actually has all of the same features as it’s non-hybrid counterpart. In some ways, his purchase of the hybrid also became a way for him to educate people, and to show them what is really out there.
“It’s human nature,” he says. “People don’t like things that are different. I’m doing it because I believe in it.”
And Haemmerle also does not buy into the notion that changing the way people live means that the earth will be worse off, or that the economy will be ruined by environmental initiatives. He says that going out to drill for more oil does not solve the problem of high gas prices.
“If you’re addicted to heroin, how do you solve the problem?” he says. “You don’t go out and say, go get more heroin.”
Editor’s Note: The article above appeared above in longer form in the September 12, 2008, issue of the West Windsor-Plainsboro News (www.wwpinfo.com).