Friday, May 17, 2013

"Passive Passion" and the False Economy of Cheap Energy

The short documentary "Passive Passion", by Charlie Hoxie, tells of buildings that use 90% less energy, are more comfortable, and cost no more to build than standard construction. It sounds like a dream, but 20,000 have already been built in Germany--houses, apartment buildings, gymnasiums. They're called "passive homes", which sounds like passive solar but isn't. Instead, collecting solar heat through windows is only a small part of the design, which focuses instead on very well insulated windows and walls, air-tightness to prevent drafts and heat loss, and heat-recovery ventilation.

As with solar technology, the U.S. was an early leader in the technology, but due to the promotion of cheap energy rather than efficiency, only about a dozen passive homes have been built here. The film profiles Henry Gifford and others in New York City who have devoted themselves to bringing this building approach back to the U.S..

Compared to LEED
Unlike the LEED standards, by which buildings are judged in the U.S., a passive home is judged solely on its energy efficiency and air-tightness. And unlike LEED, passive homes are judged on their actual performance, rather than by how well they are projected to perform. Though efficiency is a high priority, the film emphasizes the comfort of these buildings, with their abundant natural light, quietness, and lack of drafts. One interviewee in Germany compared his house to the feeling of putting on a well-made suit that fits just right. "You really get a very comfortable home. With no noise, no draft, with a really good indoor climate and a really good indoor air quality. And you get always with a very low energy."

According to Gifford, "It doesn't take anything special, in terms of technology. It just takes a special kind of attention." The extra money invested in insulation and air-tightness is balanced by a big reduction in the size of heating and cooling machinery, and the greatly reduced utility bills.

The False Economy of Cheap Energy
          In the U.S., we've been cheated of this "special kind of attention", often ending up in poorly built homes that require big furnaces and air conditioners, and start falling apart soon after the owner moves in. Cheap energy reduces the incentive for the better quality construction needed for high efficiency, and reduces the motivation for innovation.

It sounds far-fetched that such a well-built, efficient and comfortable home could be built for the same price as standard construction. But when the head of sustainability at Harvard University gave a talk at Princeton some years back, she told a similar story, that when construction of "green" buildings on campus became the new standard, procedures became routinized and costs came down.

Nobody's Counting
        Though most people are at least vaguely aware that consuming fossil fuel energy is problematic for our future, the idea of tracking how much we're actually using remains alien. Gifford points this out in the documentary: "Nobody even counts energy yet. People can tell you how many gigabytes and megabytes in a computer, people can tell you miles per gallon for a car. We're still not measuring energy in buildings."
        For instance, a new car comes with an mpg rating, but when one buys a house in Princeton, does the the seller's information include average annual energy use?

Save Money By Raising the Cost of Carbon-Based Energy
        If energy from coal, oil and natural gas were more expensive, people would adapt by paying attention to how much they use, and finding ways to use less. The passive home movement goes beyond that, describing technology available right now that can maintain our domestic lifestyles while using a tenth of the energy we currently use. That technological advance was stimulated by the relatively high cost of energy in Europe. If, say, a doubling of energy costs leads to development and implementation of technology that reduces energy needs by a factor of ten, then higher energy costs can actually reduce the cost of living. The trailer for the film claims the U.S. could save $2.2 trillion by harnessing this existing technology.
        Films on climate change offer the revelation that climate is not a given but instead could change radically as we continue altering the composition of the atmosphere through carbon-based energy use. It's heartening then to learn, through "Passive Passion", that our need for energy is also not a given, and in fact is far more malleable than most people would think.

"Passive Passion" is available at the Princeton Public Library. A few snippets can be watched at this link.

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