Zero Net Energy Homes Part 3 – The Federal R&D Agenda

A House
House, ready to become zero net energy (Image by Panoramas, CC 2.0 licensed)

In October 2008, a number of federal government departments and research organizations collaborated to produce the Federal R&D Agenda for Net Zero Energy High Performance Green Buildings (PDF). It’s a fascinating document, its origins driven primarily in response to two energy policy laws passed in 2005 and 2007 (during the Bush administration). In particular, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) created an Office of Commercial High Performance Green Buildings and a consortium on a Zero Net Energy Commercial Buildings Initiative. This consortium produced the R&D agenda.

The EISA 2007 act also includes a $250 million program that the DOE and other agencies are administering with the goal of “all new commercial buildings to be so efficient in energy consumption and in on-site renewable energy generation that they offset any energy use from the grid,” part of the Energy Independence & Security Act (EISA) of 2007 passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year.

Noting that buildings represent about 40% of U.S. energy use, and 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions, the report says:

Buildings present one of the best opportunities to economically reduce energy consumption and limit greenhouse gases.

And we already have in hand technology and techniques to get a good start on this:

From an energy perspective along, high performance building technologies can already reduce building net energy consumption on average by 30-50%. New technologies to achieve net-zero energy – buildings that over a period of time produce as much energy as they consume – must be developed and integrated holistically into building design to make buildings more self-sufficient.

For the remaining 50% of the job, the report defines six areas of research and development that are needed:

  • Improving our ability to measure the performance of buildings, and design integration

    Credible performance measures, combined with tools, performance data, and design guidelines, will create market demand for emerging building energy technologies, economies of scale, and reduced capital costs.Designing for effective daylighting, ventilation, and passive solar energy management, for example, could yield energy savings approaching 40%, without advances in individual technology efficiencies.

  • Developing building technologies and strategies to achieve net-zero energy

    Energy-efficient and direct-use renewable energy technologies – in the forms of cost-effective materials, components, subsystems, and construction techniques – still have enormous potential for energy savings at costs lower than acquiring supplies from traditional or renewable power sources. At the same time, renewable power and other supply technologies also have enormous advancement potential.

  • Improving water use and water retention
  • Improving the energy footprint of building materials and building activities
  • Improve occupant health, safety, and productivity
  • Enable these new technologies to be put into use in practice

    Adequate information and communication flows are critical to achieving energy and resource goals. Substantial technology transfer efforts will be required to penetrate all facets of the building and construction sectors.To enable a future where truly integrated design is the rule, rather than the exception, the process by which buildings are planned, designed, constructed, operated, and demolished requires a radical cultural change.

I recommend taking a look at this report – it’s quite interesting reading. As a government-sponsored work, it is naturally somewhat conservative, but even so it holds out a lot of hope – and suggests numerous avenues to pursue – for significantly reducing the energy demand of our commercial and residential buildings in the U.S.

Zero Net Energy Homes – Part 1

Beautiful sunset (CC 2.0 license)
Beautiful sunset (photo by Santa Rosa OLD SKOOL, CC 2.0 license)

This is the first post in a series on zero-net energy homes. Over the course of the series I will be covering all aspects of this topic, from the technology and knowledge available today, to the changes needed in technology, building codes, trade skills, design approaches, and will to achieve the goal of all new homes eventually being zero net energy.

Definitions and feasibility

What is a “zero-net energy home?” Zero net energy homes generate as much energy as they use. Energy used = Energy Generated. The experience of thousands of “off the grid” home owners and those bleeding edge homeowners with big solar panel installations on their roofs show that zero-net energy homes are technically feasible today. For example, see this article on Amory Lovins’ home and office in Snowmass, CO.

We know how to build them. Unfortunately, for most homeowners, they are too expensive, because the energy generation side of the equation is too costly. There are three ways to address this problem.

  1. Reduce the cost of home-based energy generation, typically either solar or wind. That depends on technological improvements and manufacturing efficiencies by the solar panel companies, and they are busily doing their best to address this situation.
  2. Change the cost basis for comparison – energy generation is expensive compared to the cost of electricity from coal-fired plants, but a carbon tax on those plants would automatically make solar more competitive (and raise the cost of energy for all of us).
  3. Make the demand side of the equation – energy used – smaller. Reducing the energy used by half cuts the energy required by half, which cuts the cost by half. And typically reducing energy use has numerous other cost benefits, and often performance benefits as well.

Over the course of this series of articles, I’ll be looking at how both sides of the equation can be reduced, but the particular focus will be on getting the demand side down.

Privation is not the solution

One way to reduce the energy use of the home is simply to do less – for example, you can save a lot of hot water if you simply stop showering every other day. Other techniques are leave the heater off when it’s cold, or the AC off when it’s hot. There’s also sitting in the dark – lighting accounts for about 15% of home energy use. Strangely, most homeowners in the U.S. are unwilling to reduce their energy demand by cutting “services” in this way.

Therefore, we have to find ways to reduce energy usage while not cutting the “services” the home provides. We all need our showers, our lights, and our comfortable temperatures. The good news is that by making small changes in how homes are designed and built, typically at a very small increment to the cost of the home overall, we can build houses that use one half the energy or less, and often at a higher level of comfort and “service” than standard-built homes.

As we will see over the next few articles, we already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively.

On the energy generation side, although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero. In fact, looking farther ahead, it may become cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Such a change has world-changing implications – but we’ll cover that later in the series.

Coming up

Zero-net energy homes is a huge topic, and some of the areas we’ll be covering in future posts are:

  • Integrative design
  • Passive heating
  • Home energy storage
  • Zero-net energy for existing homes
  • Zero-net energy and LEED
  • Practical steps for finding a zero-net energy home builder
  • Examples of zero-net energy homes
  • Achieving a zero-net energy home cost-effectively
  • How the cost-benefit equation on zero-net energy homes is likely to change over the next five and ten years

As I get started on this series, I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on what I’ve presented here, as well as other topics I should cover in future posts.

Ten Energy Predictions For The Next Decade

Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1)
Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1, CC 2.0 license)

On December 30 of last year (six days ago), my wife and I were in Pasadena, CA visiting the Greene and Greene exhibit at the Huntington Library. It was one of those glorious and rare smog-free days in the LA basin. The air sparkled, you could see for miles in every direction, and mountain range after mountain range was visible – all the way out to the snow-covered San Gabriels. Nowadays, the air is only ever this clear around the Christmas holiday, when the freeway traffic is substantially reduced and a lot of factories shut down for the week. It got me thinking about how the future – say ten to twenty years hence – may be unrecognizable in both dramatic and mundane ways. For example, smog-free days may no longer be rare in LA, once the economy has shifted off fossil fuels. (I suspect the traffic will remain, unfortunately!)

Like LA’s typical skies, the energy future is murky in the short term – this year and 2010 – and I’ll leave those predictions to others. But the big trends – sustainability, carbon fighting, and technological breakthroughs – enable us to make better sense of the mid- and long-term. Therefore, In the spirit of the New Year, the incoming administration, and the tipping point that the world has come to about climate change and sustainability, here are ten things I believe are very likely to happen in the next ten years.

  1. Residential solar PV will be cost effective in most U.S. locations (via a combination of price reduction, new design thinking, much more efficient homes, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels).
  2. Home energy storage – via batteries, hydrogen reforming, fuel cells, or other technology – will be available and installed in 10% of new homes in California, for when the sun don’t shine.
  3. More than 10% of new homes in California will be zero-net energy.
  4. 50% of new residential construction in California will be zero-net energy “ready.”
  5. The current LEED standards will be considered obsolete.
  6. More than 20% of peak grid electricity will come from excess capacity from residential solar PV.
  7. There will be general consensus that efficiency and frugality alone will not provide enough CO2 mitigation to prevent major climate change – we will need a technological solution to actually reducing atmospheric CO2 or artificially cooling the earth.
  8. There will be a mid-priced carbon fiber, plugin hybrid passenger car in production that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. The company making it will be the “next GM.”
  9. 10% of the cars on the road will be powered by 100% renewable energy and will be essentially non-polluting.
  10. New technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere will be available, powered by excess solar capacity.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, and predictions for 2018.

Zero-net Energy Series Coming Up

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series on “zero-net energy” residences (related to predictions 1-6 above). This area is about to explode. We already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively. And although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero, and probably it will be cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Talk about a world-changing situation – it really is possible to have energy too cheap to meter, but it’s going to come off our roofs, not from a nuclear plant or one of those imaginary fusion reactors.

The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind

Windmill and old houses in Schipluiden
Old Windmill (image by waterwin, CC 2.0 license)

The results of this study on solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security, by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson, are somewhat surprising, given the drumbeat from many areas on both nuclear and biofuels as necessary for the salvation of the world.

Jacobson analyzes 12 energy sources for their beneficial impact on global warming, air pollution, and energy security – the ten electricity sources are solar-photovoltaics (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP), wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, tidal, nuclear, and coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology; the two liquid fuel options are corn-ethanol (E85) and cellulosic-E85.

An article in Science Daily summarizes one of Jacobson’s conclusions:

Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.

As the bottom line in the study, Jacobson writes:

In summary, the use of wind, CSP, geothermal, tidal, solar, wave, and hydroelectric to provide electricity for BEVs [battery electric vehicles] and HFCVs [hydrogen fuel cell vehicles] result in the most benefit and least impact among the options considered. Coal-CCS and nuclear provide less benefit with greater negative impacts. The biofuel options provide no certain benefit and result in significant negative impacts. Because sufficient clean natural resources (e.g., wind, sunlight, hot water, ocean energy, gravitational energy) exists to power all energy for the world, the results here suggest that the diversion of attention to the less efficient or non-efficient options represents an opportunity cost that delays solutions to climate and air pollution health problems.

Note that the study ranks the various energy alternatives without regard to cost. That’s going to be controversial. Jacobson says:

Costs are not examined since policy decisions should be based on the ability of a technology to address a problem rather than costs (e.g., the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 prohibit the use of cost as a basis for determining regulations required to meet air pollution standards) and because costs of new technologies will change over time, particularly as they are used on a large scale.

In the real world, costs do have a major impact, especially given that we do not have a Clean Air Act regarding carbon today. This is why it’s so important that the price/kW of solar panels, for example, is dropping and will continue to drop.

In fact, when you leave cost out of the equation, is it surprising which energy sources came out on top? Let me know your thoughts.

Watch Out For Unintended Consequences

Mojave Desert scene in Joshua Tree National Park.
Image via Wikipedia

In their editorial Green Energy vs. Actual “Green” Energy Basin and Range Watch point out that there are lots of opportunities for making a big mess of the environment while trying to save it. The focus of this site is the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts in Nevada and California, the targets of many new solar projects. “There are over one million acres of public land in the six states that are being considered for sacrifice.”

Most of these projects require a lot of water, and all require “clear cutting” the desert to prevent weeds and pests.

How ironic that this so called “green revolution” has taken the irresponsible direction of so much environmental destruction. Why not just use the countless rooftops and vacant space of the millions of developed urban acres in the southwest? Could it be that urban environmental planning is considered too costly? We are baffled by this because it defeats the purpose of green.

As we make the changes to our economy and our energy infrastructure that we have to make, we have to take care of our existing resources, such as the great deserts. For no other reason than we don’t really know everything about them. For example, it’s been learned recently that:

Desert plants and soils store carbon better than most northern forests. Desert plants are masters of storing carbon. CAM (“crassulacean acid metabolism”) plants are plants that use certain special compounds to gather carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis.

Don’t want to lose that while trying to eliminate carbon from our energy system, do we? We have a lot of carbon already in the atmosphere that needs sucking up. What else is this desert flora and fauna doing for Earth that we haven’t learned yet? Do we want to take the chance of upsetting yet more of the balance? We need to take a lot of care as we move forward with whatever large-scale energy projects we undertake.

I recommend this article, and I’d be interested to hear your thinking about how to avoid bad consequences while achieving energy independence.

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A Note From The Fuel Cell Research Front

Methanol fuel cell.
Methanol fuel cell. Image via Wikipedia

I plan to do an in-depth post or series on fuel cells soon, because there is so much breakthrough work going on in this research area. Fuel cells are interesting on so many fronts – for example, they’re probably the best way to use the hydrogen generated by Daniel Nocera’s new hydrogen splitting method, announced in mid-August. And just since August, researchers have announced big improvements or cost reductions in every component of the fuel cell – membrane, catalyst, and electrodes.

This latest story from Technology Review covers a new membrane improvement for methanol fuel cells. As the article points out, methanol fuel cells have some key benefits compared to hydrogen cells, in particular that methanol is a liquid at normal temperatures, but they also have technical challenges. Paula Hammond and her team are addressing one of these:

In her lab at MIT, chemical-engineering professor Paula Hammond pinches a sliver of what looks like thick Saran wrap between tweezers. Though it appears un­remarkable, this polymer membrane can significantly increase the power output of a methanol fuel cell, which could make that technology suitable as a lighter, longer-­lasting, and more environmentally friendly alternative to batteries in consumer electronics such as cell phones and laptops.

Do you have questions about fuel cells that you’d like me to find answers to as I research my upcoming series? Let me know in the comments.

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30-fold Increase In Solar Energy By 2016 – Moore’s Law, Anyone?

Solar Power International Logo
Solar Power International Logo

The opening keynotes at the Solar Power International trade show last week were eye-opening. (See the Tuesday Keynotes video on this page – Resch at 20 minutes, Hamm at 37 minutes.)

Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association first told the story of getting the investment tax credit for solar renewed – 17 failed votes before it finally passed with the Paulson Bailout bill. He then outlined the benefits to the solar industry of the ITC – stability for solar energy businesses, creation of thousands of new business opportunities due to the remove of the residential solar cap, and a return to leadership of the US in solar. “Solar energy is going to create 440k new jobs, 1.2 million new solar installations, and 28 gigawatts of new capacity – enough to power seven million homes throughout the U.S.”

To achieve the 28 gigawatts of new solar electric generation capacity predicted by Resch in the next eight years, Julia Hamm of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) threw down a challenge to the attendees. The industry must “be bold, be innovative, be strategic.” In particular, she outlined four key policy guidelines the industry must embrace to achieve this goal.

Utility Ownership of Solar Power Projects

The utility and solar industries must collaborate to find program structures, such as utility ownership of distributed photovoltaics, that provide a winning scenario for both industries, as well as for customers at large. The solar industry can utilize this new market segment as a buffer until home and small business owners are back on more solid financial footing.

Increased Utility Engagement in Solar Markets

The utility and solar industries must work together to get more utilities engaged, starting by increasing the solar knowledge base of utility employees, from top executives down to distribution engineers. We must move beyond having ninety seven percent of all grid-connected solar installations in just 10 utilities’ service territories.

Greased Wheels

The utility and solar industries must work in partnership with regulators and investors to push for approval and funding of new transmission projects and the development of smart grid configurations to expedite the timeframe in which new utility-scale and distributed solar projects can come on line and provide maximum value.

Development of Innovative Approaches

By working in collaboration, the utility and solar industries can make great strides towards modernizing today’s electricity infrastructure and offering customers affordable and clean power. But the status quo will not cut it. We need bold new ideas developed in tandem for the mutual benefit of both industries, and society at large.

(A press release version of this challenge is here.)

The 28 gigawatt figure represents an increase in solar capacity of more than thirty fold between 2009 and 2016. This is approximately three times the estimated amount of generation predicted to come online as a result of existing renewable portfolio standards and policies in states with existing solar carve outs.

However, not only does 30-fold growth far outstrip most predictions for solar energy capacity in the next eight years, it has another interesting property. It corresponds to a “Moore’s Law-type” of growth, with a doubling period of about every 18 months. This is the first time I’ve heard a solar energy organization step up to a prediction of a Moore’s Law-type growth rate. And it means that in 18 years, if the doubling rate stays constant, solar would be responsible for over 400 gigawatts of capacity, or just about equal to our current energy usage in the U.S. Solar could be providing nearly 100 percent of our energy by 2026, or even more if our overall energy usage goes down due to efficiency, as is possible given California’s example.

And if our solar capacity keeps on doubling every year and half after that? What will we do with all that energy? Your comments welcome, of course!

Sahara Forest Project: An Awesome Example of Mega-Integrative Design

The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture
The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture

The Sahara Forest project represents integrative design at a huge scale. (Integrative design combines multiple design improvements to get an overall improvement that’s bigger than the sum of its components.) As it says on the the Sahara Forest project home page:

The project combines two proven technologies in a new way to create multiple benefits: producing large amounts of renewable energy, food and water as well as reversing desertification.

The two technologies are the Seawater Greenhouse, invented by Charlie Paton, and a concentrating solar energy generation capability. The synergies arise in several ways – the energy generation provides the power to run fans to work the greenhouse, while the greenhouse creates excess fresh water for cleaning the mirrors of the generator, for example. The team that’s come together to create the project also represents some interesting synergies:

An inventor – Charlie Paton, creator of the Seawater Greenhouse; an architect – Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture, previously of Grimshaw and the lead architect on the iconic Eden Project; an engineer – Bill Watts of Max Fordham & Partners, an engineering firm that focuses on energy efficient systems for the built environment.

The Sahara Forest post at Treehugger features a long interesting response in the comments by Pawlyn in response to questions raised by other commenters.

This is one of several projects I’ve read about recently that combine energy generation via visible light with use of the excess heat to achieve much higher solar energy conversion efficiencies. For example, this report in Science Daily last year about a prototype PV/Thermal system that was projected to capture 80% of the energy. While it complicates the mechanicals of the system, it certainly seems to make sense to take advantage of the heat created as a side effect of PV energy collection, especially since the PV cells work better – are more efficient – at lower temperatures. The heat needs to be removed anyway!

So far neither the project’s website or news reports about the project have many details about its progress or funding, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

Expanding Options In Solar Energy and Electric Cars

Mission Peak (L), Mount Allison (C) and Monume...
Mission Peak in Fremont, CA. Image via Wikipedia

A roundup of a few stories that came out this week that I found particularly interesting.

  • Solyndra, a startup in Fremont, CA (just down the street from my office), is using a new form factor for thin film solar cells:

    Unlike conventional solar panels, which are made of flat solar cells, the new panels comprise rows of cylindrical solar cells made of a thin film of semiconductor material. The material is made of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. To make the cells, the company deposits the semiconductor material on a glass tube. That’s then encapsulated within another glass tube with electrical connections that resemble those on fluorescent lightbulbs. The new shape allows the system to absorb more light over the course of a day than conventional solar panels do, and therefore generate more power.

    Not only do they not need trackers, but because they are mounted with space between each tube, they aren’t susceptible to wind and they can collect light reflected off the building’s roof and ambient light coming in obliquely.

    What I like about this story is that it shows that there’s still a lot more innovation to be done in all areas of alternative energy design – yesterday I saw another report about a new fuel cell membrane made of a cheap material instead of platinum, and there’s practically a new wind energy device every week. They’re not all going to be winners, but it’s the kind of design ferment that’s going to lead to big cost and practicality improvements in every area.

  • The EPA provides an interactive analysis (using Google Earth) of marginal and contaminated land that could be used for renewable energy farms – wind and/or solar:

    According to the EPA, many lands tracked by the agency, such as large Superfund sites, and mining sites offer thousands of acres of land, and may be situated in areas where the presence of wind and solar structures are less likely to be met with aesthetic, and therefore political, opposition.

    One stumbling block for a massive transition to solar power in the U.S. has been the land use question. I’m not saying we want to build our power on contaminated lands, but it’s interesting to see this as an option.

    Via CleanTechnica.com

  • Renault commits to electric vehicles. Saying that:

    “EVs are a necessity because hybrids cannot deliver the level of gasoline use and emissions reductions that governments and customers are demanding of automakers”

    Renault unveiled two zero-emission concept cars at the Paris autoshow Mondiale de l’Automobile, both of which are pure electric. The cars have a range of 160-200 kilometers (95-120 miles) and are designed for day-to-day use and short weekend trips, “not vacations” as Renault admits.

    Renault is committing to EVs because they believe that’s the only they’ll be able to deliver the gasoline economy and emissions reductions being demanded by both the market and governments.

These stories caught my eye as not just “more of the same” this week. What green energy stories got your interest up recently?

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How Much Sun Is There Really?

Solar power systems installed in the areas def...
Image via Wikipedia

Do you ever wonder about that claim that the energy flux of sunshine on the Earth is 10,000 times the projected energy use of civilization? Well, I do. I decided to drill down a bit into this number, to find out what the real bottom line potential of solar energy is. There are a lot of caveats to that number:

  • 3/4 of the Earth’s surface is ocean, so the energy flux on land, right off, is on 2,500 times the projected energy use of civilization. I’m not saying we can’t collect solar energy off the ocean, but to the layperson, “Earth’s surface” means “land surface,” and that should be clarified
  • The sun’s energy is not just going to waste as it hits the Earth – it drives climate, for example. Most importantly, it drives photosynthesis. How much of the sunlight dropping on the earth used for photosynthesis? Interesting question.
  • The amount of solar energy hitting one square meter at noon is about one kilowatt, which is a handy metric to remember
  • For a roof-mounted solar photovoltaic system today, you can expect to get 20% or less efficiency – meaning that you need 5 square meters for one kilowatt

But, as it turns out, there’s actually a cool map (shown above) that shows not only where the sun shines across the Earth on average, but also provides a visual clue about how much area it would take to provide all the energy demand of the entire world using solar power. The map is presented in this paper from Matthias Loster, and has been shown in various places around the web.

Solar power systems installed in the areas defined by the dark disks could provide a little more than the world’s current total primary energy demand (assuming a conversion efficiency of 8%, [and for the year 2006]).

Now all we have to do is string some (big) wires over to those desert-y places with the big black dots, and we’re made in the shade … er… sun.

By the way, while researching this post, I came across one from Robert Rapier at R-Squared Energy blog, focusing on the insolation just in the United States, and comparing it to Germany’s. Interesting reading.

What questions do you have about solar energy and its potential either in the US or around the world? Let me know what you’re wondering about in the comments section and I’ll do some more research.

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