A Building That Creates More Energy Than It Uses

Mesa Verde

This is a great example that aligns perfectly with the topic of this blog, “Keeping the lights on.”

In its most recent “Environmental Lovins” blog post, Monica Sanford and Maria Stamas of the Rocky Mountain Institute describe “passive design,” the techniques for building structures that work for humans within the natural constraints of the environment. Buildings sited for optimal use of daylight, equipped with thermal mass to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter, using passive ventilation systems, and so on, can use significantly less energy than “normal” buildings.

Consider the Anasazi Indians. They constructed high-mass adobe dwellings in southern-facing caves in the American West. In the winter, when the sun follows a lower path, their designs harnessed the sun’s direct heating energy, and during the summer, when the sun follows a higher path, rock overhangs blocked heat gain and the sun’s harsh rays.

Though they didn’t realize it at the time, the Anasazi employed passive design — using the sun’s energy to light, cool, heat and ventilate a building’s interior.

Sanford and Stamas go on to provide a lot more background on passive design and its benefits for building owners, occupants, and the global environment.

As an example of the power of passive design, especially when combined with renewable energy sources, they pointed out this office building under construction in a suburb of Paris which will create more energy than it uses.

Patrick Getreide, who is leading the Energy Plus project with partner Marc Eisenberg, said: “It will be the first building in the world to be ‘energy plus’ and carbon zero.”The proposed building, which will be more than 70,000 sq m and house up to 5,000 people, will produce enough of its own electricity to power all the heating, lighting, and air conditioning required by tenants. It will also generate carbon credits which it hopes to trade for money in the future.

Energy Plus building visualization
Energy Plus building visualization

Getreide acknowledges that this isn’t the cheapest way to build a building (yet), but anticipate that tenants will end up paying about the normal rate for premium office space in their location. And of course, they won’t have energy bills.

By using integrated design, including solar PV collection, optimal siting, and a cutting-edge form of insulation, the team expects electricity consumption per square metre of office space per year of 16 kilowatts, lower than any other building in the world of this size. Most modern buildings use between 80 and 250 kilowatts per square metre, while older ones often use up to 300 kilowatts.

Because commercial real estate is a conservative industry, this project required investment from non-traditional sources, including former President Clinton’s Global Initiative and support from several governments. Rocky Mountain Institute is a key advisor on the project as well.

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Both Sides Essentially Agree in “Economist” Debate – Act Now!

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The Economist magazine hosted an online debate earlier this week, on the proposition “We can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.”? Speaking in favor of the proposition was Joseph J. Romm, Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress. Speaking against was Peter Meisen, President, Global Energy Network Institute.

In my opinion, although Meisen had some good observations of some non-“business as usual” innovations that are needed, the proposition was well-defended by Romm. He argued that not only do we not have time to wait for new breakthroughs in alternative energy, we have enough technology now – solar thermal, efficiency, wind, etc. – that we can address climate change with our current capabilities. He agrees that innovations will be welcome, but they are not required.

First, new breakthrough energy technologies simply don’t enter the market fast enough to have a big impact in the time frame we care about. We need strategies that can get a 5-10% share—or more—of the global market for energy in a quarter century. Second, if you are in the kind of hurry humanity is in, then you are going to have to take unusual measures to deploy technologies far more aggressively than has ever occurred historically.

Bottom line: If we want to preserve the health and well-being of future generations, then focusing government policy and resources on speeding up existing technology deployment is far more important than focusing them on breakthrough technology development.

Meisen actually agreed completely that we need to start now with what we have today in terms of technology. But as I read it, his major point was that we need innovations not in technology, but in policy, thinking, and approach to really solve our climate and energy problems:

We now have more elegant, sophisticated and cleaner ways to generate and deliver electricity for our society. Remaining addicted to fossil fuels is damaging to our environment and bad long term policy. It is unsustainable. Aggressive policies that encourage conservation, energy efficiency, clean transport and linking renewable resources are the new priorities. Flipping our energy paradigm upside down will drive innovation and investment towards a de-carbonised future–and just makes sense..

The bottom line conclusion – get started now with the technology we have (both speakers agree) but direct some of our efforts toward new ways of solving the problem, such as improved policies from our governments (including better cooperation on international electricity transmission).

The entire debate is well worth reading on the Economist web site. They are open for comments, as am I.

(Thanks to CleanTechnica.com for the link to the debate.)

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Why My Optimism Is Tempered

Achieving energy independence in the U.S. is possible, but there are many obstacles to overcome.

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I wrote on Monday about why I am optimistic that we will come out of this energy mess in excellent shape. But, my optimism is not unalloyed – there are a lot of questions still to answer.

  • Is there truly enough capturable solar energy streaming down on the Earth to power a good lifestyle for all 9 billion of us in 2050? Clearly not, at least at the U.S.’s current per capita energy intensity. What about at 50% of our current energy use? That’s a target that many think we can accomplish here in the U.S., so why not around the world?
  • What about all the C02 we’ve stuck up there already? Can we do something about it that won’t end up causing as many problems as it solves? Certainly sensible steps like reversing deforestation will help a lot, but do we have time, and do we know how? Can we grow a rainforest from a burned-out meadow, even if it use to be a rainforest? This is not clear – but we should figure it out.
  • Can we do any of this fast enough? I’ve argued that the technology and knowledge are here for reducing our energy footprint in the U.S. by 50% and replacing all of the remaining energy needs with renewables, but is there time and will to do it? The sheer manpower that it will take? Even if owners of commercial real estate were willing to do the necessary retrofits to achieve the goals, because they are cost effective? More importantly, if every one agreed to do it, are there enough architects, contractors, HVAC installers, and electricians to do the work?
  • There’s a similar question for residences – most residences get enough solar energy flux on the roof to offset a good portion of their electricity use – but even if the cost were free, after first year saving, who would do the 100 million installations? Even if spread over ten years, that would keep 25,000 installers busy every day.

There are many more such questions – can we successfully combine distributed power generation (e.g., on residences) with utility energy on a gigantic scale? Where do all the materials to do these installations come from?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments about whether you’re optimistic, the obstacles you see in the road ahead, and your ideas on how to overcome the roadblocks.

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Drink Wine, Fly Through Denver

fruity grapes in one of the vineyards of Napa ...Image via Wikipedia

Here are a few tips to help reduce your carbon footprint:

  • If you are going to drink wine anyway, consider drinking one of Far Niente’s varietals. They’ve installed a 400kW solar PV system (PDF of SF Chronicle article) that results in a net-zero energy bill and offsets a large percentage of their CO2 emissions
  • When flying, which we know is one of the worst activities from a carbon standpoint, you can at least connect through Denver International, which just dedicated a 2MW solar system (PDF of Sharp Energy press release).
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Why I Am Optimistic

GDP per capita vs. 'Economic Energy Efficiency...Image via Wikipedia

The signs are pointing to a critical convergence that, to be honest, is coming just in time. The world’s will is aligning. Climate change, oil prices, pollution, growth, commuting – these and other factors are forming a message in society’s mind that says “things are not good and they must be fixed.” Businesses and governments, at the same time, are realizing that the changes needed to achieve sustainability are not going to be a drag on the economy but can actually be profitable while being good for society as a whole. Of course, the high and rising price of oil has something to do with this as well.

And technology is improving – finally – to the point that our remaining energy needs, after the 50% reduction in energy intensity possible via efficiency, can be cost-effectively replaced by renewables. Scientific and technical announcements just in the last two weeks – factor of 10 reductions in fuel cell and hydrogen splitting catalyst costs; new materials lighter, stronger, and cheaper than carbon fiber; and new ways to collect sunlight and convert it to electrical, thermal, and chemical energy – will, when available commercially, combine with all the other technologies that continue to stream out of labs and corporations, to drive the prices of sustainable energy down, down, and farther down.

So what we’re seeing at this moment in history is a powerful combination – the will to change with the technical ability to make the change, and the understanding that the change is cost-effective and in many cases profitable.

And that’s why I’m optimistic.

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SD Forum’s Green and Clean Dinner Meeting

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I attended the SDForum Green and Clean Dinner tonight. The topic was “Where’s the Money?” Five panelists, representing a VC firm, a bank, an angel funding group, a bridge-financing firm, and an entrepreneur who has raised his money independently, discussed the various sources of funding for clean tech companies. i took extensive notes, and will provide more details later, but for now some of the highlights were:

  • Liquidity may be different for clean tech companies than we got used to for high tech companies during the Internet boom
  • Because of the technical risks involved in clean tech, the old venture capital adage of “market first, team second, and product third” often needs to be turned around
  • Especially for power, this is a global market – Europe is at least 15 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of regulations supporting alternative energy and other clean tech
  • There are a lot of entrepreneurs seeking funding – the VC read over 2,400 business plans and funded only 21. The angel investor says one of his biggest problems is “perpetual motion machine” proposals – they have to do a lot of scientific due diligence on the proposals

SDForum’s next Green and Clean event is a breakfast meeting in San Francisco on September 30, focusing on Innovation in Transportation.

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Carbon Fiber May Not Be Necessary

Inlay with nacre tesserae; Bagdad pavilion; th...Image via Wikipedia

Looked at one way, carbon fiber composites are just our simplistic human analog of natural nano-featured composites like those that make up mussel and abalone shells. Mollusks use a “digital” process for creating their shells – a digital process controlled by a computer running DNA as its code. What if we could make composites like those little molluscs – stronger and more resilient than some random fibers jammed into some plastic?

Now researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, following on work done at Michigan and MIT, have created a new bio-inspired material that combines the strength of ceramics with the stretchiness of polymers. Consisting of ceramic platelets in a polymer matrix, like bricks in mortar, the material is both light and strong – approximately four times as strong as steel.

In designing the material, the researchers carefully studied the mechanical structure of nacre, the shiny layer on the inside of seashells, and tried to improve it. Nacre has platelets made of calcium carbonate arranged in layers inside a protein-based polymer. “There’s something very special about the size of these platelets,” Studart says. “Nacre uses specific platelet length and thickness to achieve the high strength and [stretchability] that you see in metals.”

This type of biomimicry is the next major frontier of materials science. Sea shell, or nacre, has long been a target for researchers in the emerging field of biomimetics – literally “copying life” – along with artificial photosynthesis for gathering sunlight as energy, multiple other materials such as spider silk, and a whole host of behaviors and capabilities that the natural world has evolved over hundreds of millions, or even billions, of years.

The combination of nature’s techniques, such as creating nacre with a digital process, and Man’s inventiveness is ushering an era of materials with amazing properties – just in time to address some of the most significant problems we’re facing, including global climate change and sustainable energy.

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Execs See Profits and Higher Quality Through Green Manufacturing

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In a recent survey by Eye For Transport, supply chain executives across a range of industries agreed not only that “greening” the manufacturing process was becoming more and more cost effective, but that they expected increased profits and better quality as a result.

A whopping 95% of the 3,000 North American executives polled agree that green manufacturing will continue to expand, citing increased profits (66%) and improved efficiency and product quality (43%) as key drivers.

43% is not even a majority, but it’s a sign the tide of perception is turning that going green is not a tax, but can result in both bottom line and top line benefits to companies.

Other interesting numbers from the survey:

  • 77% of manufacturing executives believe energy prices will rise significantly next year, requiring them to improve energy efficiency
  • 66% believe there are markets for more expensive and greener products in their industries

(Via Sustainable Life Media)

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Getting (A Lot) More Done Per CO2 Molecule

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According to a McKinsey Global Institute report released at the end of July, the world economy will have to improve its “carbon productivity” – the amount of gross domestic product (GDP) created per unit of CO2 – by a factor of ten by 2050 to stop global climate change in its tracks while continuing to enable a healthy level of growth. The report predicts that the cost of this transformation will amount to 0.6% – 1.3% of global GDP by 2030. They note that this compares favorably to the cost of insurance born by economies, which amounts to more than 3% of GDP.

Helpfully, the report also suggests the most appealing opportunities for achieving this ten-fold improvement in productivity (referring to MGI’s February paper on the global cost curve):

It will be essential to identify and capture the lowest-cost abatement opportunities in the economy. Analysis of McKinsey’s global cost curve, a map of the world’s abatement opportunities ranked from lowest-cost to highest-cost options, identifies five areas for action to drive the necessary microeconomic changes: capturing available opportunities to increase energy efficiency in a cost-effective way; decarbonizing energy sources; accelerating the development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies; changing the behaviors of businesses and consumers; and preserving and expanding the world’s carbon sinks, most notably its forests.

Productivity (“regular productivity”) increased by a factor of ten over the course of the Industrial Revolution – a period of 120 years. McKinsey’s call to action calls for a similar increase, but over a period one-third as long. But they warn that, if this goal is not achieved, we will all be facing lives of significant privation.

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Carbon Mitigation Through Carbon Fiber?

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Here’s an idea – let’s just suck the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbon fiber to build superlight cars! These superlight cars would significantly reduce our demand for gasoline in the short term, and enable a right-sized hydrogen-based transportation fuel economy in the long term! Sounds great, right? But it’s a pipe dream right now – today carbon fiber is made from PolyAcryloNitrile (PAN), which is made from petroleum, and it’s an expensive and time-consuming process to make the fiber, and to make automobile parts from it.

Let’s quickly tot up the pros and cons of carbon fiber as part of a profitable solution to the world’s energy problems:


  • Enables superlight cars, which require much smaller (therefore relatively less expensive as well as more efficient) engines to provide equivalent performance to current cars
  • Huge safety advantages, due to a) vehicles having less kinetic energy due to lower weight and b) structures can be incredibly strong and or selectively weak to protect passengers and provide crumple zones
  • Can significantly reduce the number of parts per vehicle
  • Can significantly reduce assembly time per vehicle


  • 2-10 times more expensive per part than steel
  • Carbon fiber production significantly lower than necessary for application to even a fraction of new vehicles
  • Cycle times for parts are typically in hours, rather than minutes as for steel parts
  • Design expertise is limited
  • Process for making fibers is environmentally unfriendly
  • Fabrication techniques have a large amount of fiber waste, compounding the cost disadvantage

Despite the advantages of carbon fiber, the disadvantages seem so overwhelming that many analysts have discounted it as a near term option. For example, the recent MIT report “On The Road In 2035” asserts:

“Polymer composites [that is, carbon fiber reinforced composites, ed.] are also expected to replace some steel in the vehicle, but to a smaller degree given high cost inhibitions.”

So, the future for carbon fiber is not looking rosy. But… There is some hope on the horizon. The companies, organizations, and research labs that break the code can look forward to significant returns, so the investment in addressing carbon fiber’s disadvantages is large and growing. Several startups are promising significant improvements in cost and cycle time, while multiple labs are addressing the questions of feedstock, environmental impact, cycle time, and efficiency. Amory Lovins at Rocky Mountain Institute already argues that the time is now to initiate the transition to composite cars, with his Hypercar.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the following topics on the work of improving carbon fiber composites.

  • Reducing the cost
  • Improving cycle time
  • Reducing waste
  • Using environmentally friendly processes for feedstock generation, fiber creation, and fabrication
  • Other alternatives for strong, lightweight composites, including new biomemetic materials
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