Sunday, November 14, 2010

Super-Efficiency with Renewables to Forge a Stabilized Climate: Inspiration from the US Passive House Conference

I won't attempt to do justice to the whole 5th Annual US Passive House conference recently held here in Portland, but I do want to highlight a few points from the event which I found inspirational and insightful.

The welcome by Portland Mayor, Sam Adams, set the tone for the conference when he noted, "being recognized as the most sustainable city in the US is high praise on a low standard.” He spoke of the intention in Portland to orient neighborhoods around a 20-minute walk given that two thirds of transportation use is not commuting to work, but for shopping and other trips. And he spoke of the need for increased building efficiency by underscoring that, “the most valuable thing is the watt not used from the grid.”

Jens Lausten, senior energy efficiency policy analyst at the International Energy Agency, highlighted energy efficiency as the critical part of a sustainable energy future saying, “If we can't do buildings right, we might as well forget about climate change.” Lausten was responsible for the IEA recommendations on energy efficiency in buildings and other G-8 related policy work on buildings. He said that energy efficiency alone needs to deliver more than half of the needed abatement, energy efficiency and renewables need to make up more than 75%, while nuclear—in the best case—could only make up 10%. In other words, we have to focus on efficiency. Further he pointed out that when we increase building efficiency we become richer since we get the reduction for free versus carbon sequestration, which we'd have to pay for.

Lausten claims that most studies on energy efficiency are wrong because they're based on particular techniques like better roof insulation, better windows etc. He says instead, we need to focus on concepts and a holistic approach to efficiency which he summarized as:
1.    Passive House which is feasible in many cases,
2.    Zero energy buildings, zero carbon, and plus energy buildings (which generate a surplus of energy)
3.    Intelligent design
4.    Factor 10 efficiency renovations to Passive House standard or nearly Passive House. First, we need to get new buildings to Passive House standard, and then work to retrofit existing buildings.

He says that if we want large-scale reductions in energy and carbon, we need to address policies, and pointed out that if we don't put these requirements for efficiency in building codes, we don't get a lot of results.
Affordable townhomes being built to Passive House standard
by Habitat for Humanity in Washington, DC

Robert Hastings, professor emeritus of the Donau University Krems-Austria and an energy consultant and architect, compared the American and European paths to super-efficient buildings and Passive House from the solar air heated parlor developed in 1881 by Edward Morse, to the early solar air systems developed in 1900 that soon led to commercialized solar collectors, to the MIT solar house of 1939, and on through the present. Having been involved in so much of the recent history himself, in both the USA and Europe, he brought a rich personal experience to this exploration. Some points he made that hit home with me include the need to look at the whole energy picture covering three sectors–industry, transportation, and buildings, and the difficulty of industry and transportation to take on a large percentage of renewables. As he says it’s “difficult to run a steel plant” or “fly large aircraft on solar power”. Therefore buildings must be the “trendsetters” and take the “brunt” of the shift to efficiency and renewables. He points to an approach of combining passive solar with day-lighting, solar thermal and solar PV generation, coupled with an extremely efficient envelope, which gives the combined result of very high renewables coverage within a dramatically reduced demand. He stated that zero energy buildings, is the path in North America.

Dr. Wolfgang Feist—the physicist founder and director of the Passive House Institute in Darmstadt, Germany—discussed the implementation of the Passive House standard worldwide. Dr. Feist pointed out that almost all countries in Europe have Passive House buildings—mostly with no incentive or government financing—and the long-term studies of Passive House buildings in action show an incredibly consistent picture of low energy use. For example, Passive House buildings in Vienna demonstrate three times less energy use than the local low-energy code buildings, while they are nearly the same cost to build. On top of that, those low energy buildings often have humidity problems that require costly remediation. There are now two Passive House buildings completed in Japan and there is even a demonstration Passive House building in Antarctica.
North Carolina's first Passive House has recently been completed

In the keynote address, physicist Amory Lovins—chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute—pointed out that saving fuel now cost less than new energy sources, although Copenhagen somehow forgot this. He said that if we drop 3-4% we could stabilize the climate and given that we've already seen cuts in some areas by 6 to 16%, it shows that such reductions are feasible. He made the point that wind power could replace 40% of coal energy generation, and that photovoltaic now cost more than a new coal plant, but soon it won't. And the total of nonnuclear alternatives can replace coal power more than 23 times, but we only need to do it once. He too focused on efficiency as critical to the whole shift that needs to happen and cited examples of the super-efficient Rocky Mountain Institute building (which BTW was a key inspiration for Dr. Feist in developing the Passive House standard) which has no furnace and uses no fossil fuels and the renovation of the Empire State building that will cut energy use by 35% and will have a payback time of just three years.

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