How to Talk Green, and Know What it Means

As a writer, I'm a stickler for accuracy, especially when it comes to grammar and vocabulary. But the more I explore New Orleans' green-building scene, the more hard-to-define words I seem to add to my vocabulary wall. (Yes, I have a wall of notecards with vocab words. Go ahead, roll your eyes.)

It seems one can't enter a shopping mall or go to a cocktail party these days without hearing terms such as "carbon-neutral," "VOCs" or "low-impact." Even seemingly self-explanatory words like "solar panel" and "renewable energy" can be difficult to explain in one sentence.

As America's environmental consciousness grows, a number of green buzzwords have entered the nation's lexicon, many without clear definitions. (What does "energy-efficient" really mean?)

To help folks (and myself) better understand, I've compiled a glossary of green buzzwords from a team of expert sources: Dan Etheridge, assistant director of the Tulane City Center; Jon Luther, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans; Forest Bradley-Wright, sustainable rebuild coordinator for the Alliance for Affordable Energy; and Prisca Weems, principal architect for FutureProof, a sustainable design and building firm.

If you want to learn more about these buzzwords, the Tulane City Center, in collaboration with Neighborhood Housing Services and Groundwork, is hosting a "De-Confusing Green" event today at the GREENbuild house, an environmentally friendly home designed and built by Tulane School of Architecture students.

Representatives from all the organizations mentioned above and more will be on hand to walk visitors through the house, explain its green features and talk more about environmental programs.


This is the granddaddy of green buzzwords, because it has multiple layers of meaning. We'll cover it more extensively in a future column. Meanwhile, here's what our experts had to say:

Etheridge: "At the Tulane City Center, we see sustainability as an approach to design more than it is an outcome." It encompasses not only "energy-efficient technologies or renewable materials," but also placing design work in a "larger ecological and social context. Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, said quite simply that, 'A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.' "

Luther: "It is essentially addressing resource efficiency and preservation, guaranteeing that resources will be available in years to come. It is impossible not to affect the environment when building; however, conscious efforts and effective choices can be made that significantly limit how and in what amount we make those impacts. That is the overall intent of green building."

Low-impact materials

Weems: "Recycled usually refers to recycled content, (or) in reference to re-use of materials. Low-impact has more to do with the way materials are harvested for use in the product. For instance, bamboo is a rapidly renewable resource (a product that can be grown or naturally replenished or cleansed at a rate that exceeds human depletion of the resource), whereas certain kinds of stone, fossil fuels, etc., are primary extractions, meaning they are finite resources. Extraction usually leads to environmental degradation, which decreases the value and viability of the land and its inhabitants."

Volatile Organic Compounds

Weems: "Volatile Organic Compounds are organic chemical compounds that can significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere during use, application or drying out of paint or other coatings. This process can lead to unsafe toxins that can be inhaled by workers or inhabitants."

Luther: "VOCs can and do contribute to air pollution and are a greenhouse gas. VOCs relate to building because the compounds are found in many household paints and wallpapers. Many paints on the market are either low-VOC-content or low-VOC-emitting."

Geothermal heating

Weems: "Underground coils used to transfer heat or cooling from the ground to the inside of the building." Can be used interchangeably with "ground source heat pump."

Solar panels

Bradley-Wright: A solar panel is any mechanism that harvests sunlight for energy use. They include photovoltaic cells, which collect solar power for electricity, as well as solar thermal panels, which use sunlight to heat water.

Luther: "Photovoltaic just means electricity from light. Solar panels convert sunlight into usable electric energy. Solar energy can be used for anything in the household that needs electricity."

Renewable energy

Bradley-Wright: "Energy derived from resources that are regenerative, rapidly replenished, or for all practical purposes cannot be depleted. Potential renewable energy resources in New Orleans include solar photovoltaic power generation and solar thermal energy; biomass from landfill gas, municipal solid waste gasification, and wood-waste; and geothermal, hydro, and wind power generation."

Luther: "Renewable energy is energy created from renewable sources as opposed to exhaustible sources. Oil and coal, though natural resources, are exhaustible resources because of the amount of time needed to create them. Sunlight and wind are constant at any one point."


Bradley-Wright: "A product or building technique that reduces energy waste, thereby helping to reduce energy bills. Examples include weatherization around windows and doors, switching to compact fluorescent or LED lighting, high-efficiency appliances and air conditioners, radiant barriers and many many more."

Embodied energy

Weems: "It is defined roughly as the total energy that a product may be said to contain, including all energy used in growing, extracting and manufacturing it, and energy used to transport it to the point of use. The embodied energy of a structure or system includes the embodied energy of its components plus the energy used in construction. It is difficult to quantify, and there is no accepted standard for calculating it."

Carbon footprint

Bradley-Wright: "The sum of carbon emissions associated with a lifestyle, building or activity. This term is usually used to illustrate the higher or lower amount of carbon dioxide emitted between otherwise comparable alternatives, such as the difference between shipping products by air (which has a large carbon footprint), or driving them using biodiesel (which has a low carbon footprint); living in town near where you shop and work (low carbon footprint), or commuting 45 minutes to work . . . each day."

Carbon emissions

Bradley-Wright: "Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane and fluorocarbons, all of whose absorption of solar radiation has contributed to the greenhouse effect and global warming. Carbon emissions are a greenhouse gas. Methane is also a greenhouse gas, and is more severe on a molecular level than carbon. However, greenhouse gas emissions' most apparent and concerning source are carbon emissions."


Weems: "A term used to describe a building design that consumes no fuels that will release carbon dioxide, or a design that has used renewable fuels as energy sources to ensure that the total production of carbon dioxide related to the project is zero."

Bradley-Wright: "It's a term that can be thrown around quite casually, but it's extremely hard to achieve. There are three things vital to the concept of carbon neutral: First, to reduce or eliminate net carbon emission. Second, it has to be quantified. You have to be able to prove that you reached the point where no net carbon emissions are produced. Lastly, this is a goal, an ideal that we should be aiming for."

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Molly Reid can be reached at or (504) 826-3448.