Posts Tagged ‘solar’

Is it possible to live in harmony with our environment while maintaining the comforts of 21st century living?  Proponents of Zero Net Energy (ZNE) buildings and communities believe we can.  The concept of living in structures where carbon emissions, construction costs and rates of energy consumption are balanced by efficient design and conscious practice is beginning to gain traction in a world concerned with global climate change.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be converted, shifted and measured.  ZNE buildings attempt to achieve through various technologies and architectural techniques to engineer homes and businesses that produce or save as much energy as they use.  Defining guidelines differ across Europe and North America (where most of this innovative development is taking place) but several key principles outlining the functions of are held in common.

Energy use- The amount of energy produced on site should be at least equal to the amount of energy needed by the building.  This includes the energy required to transport electricity through transmission lines from source to final destination. Many ZNE’s strive to function off the main electrical grid, becoming completely self-sufficient and even sending power back into the system.

Emissions- ZNE’s strive to be carbon neutral, meaning any burning of fossil fuels involved in construction must be offset by the creation of renewable energy from the building.  Some even go as far to count the carbon burned through commuting to and from the ZNE location as well as the “embodied energy”, or amount of fuel used to manufacture, distribute and dispose of the materials used.

Zero off-site energy use-  To achieve a 100% ZNE rating, any purchased carbon offsets must come from renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, water or biogas.

How do ZNE’s go low?  First, computer programs and traditional architectural principles are applied in the design phase to incorporate passive solar heating and natural conditioning, wind patterns, and the composition of earth beneath the building to reduce heating and cooling costs.  Every detail is considered, from the overhang of a door to the location of a window in relation to the sun’s journey across the sky.  Not only are the energy profiles of the materials and initial models taken into account, but the entire lifetime of the building.  This means that each element must be durable, recyclable, and able to be neutralized by renewable energy.  As with LEED certified buildings,  ZNE locations have a wide array of energy-saving features.  LED lights replace traditional fluorescent bulbs, high efficiency appliances monitor and save electricity, and natural heating  and cooling, insulation, heat recycling aid in controlling indoor climate with the least amount of power possible.

Once a ZNE structure is up and running, it meets its electricity needs in a number of ways.  Some of these strategies are used exclusively, while others are harnessed in combination.  Solar cells, wind turbines, biofuels, and in some special locations, even microhyro or geothermal strategies are all sources of clean energy.  Through a mix of conservation and renewable energy harvest, it is possible to function autonomously, although some ZNE communities still opt to connect themselves to the grid in order to draw power for those times when their demand exceeds production.

Whole Zero Energy neighborhoods are popping up around the United States and offering an exciting opportunity to live in a more sustainable fashion, creating jobs in the private sector, and aiding the fight to combat climate change and environmental degradation.  Firms that specialize in green building such as Zeta and Zero Energy Design tout the long-term monetary savings of energy-conscious development and state of the art renovations.  Their projects are inspired by the landscape, unique to each client, and ready to meet the demands of an energy-hungry and fuel strapped future.  Just as in basketball, when it comes to winning the game in inspirational green design, it ain’t nothin’ but net.

The orderly and hardworking good people of Germany recently had the pleasure of welcoming me as their guest and kin, and it was with due interest and Wanderlust that I admired their seasonably verdant landscapes and observed their distinctively indigenous customs. Coming from a land of wide open spaces, perpetual sunshine and shameless consumption, I can’t help but marvel over the northern European’s congenital capacity for sensible pragmatism and efficiency.

With our sight-seeing ambitions stifled by inclement weather, I resigned myself to spending most of my short stay immersed in quotidian Germanic living, viewing rural and urban scenery from the front seat of an immaculate Audi station wagon and sampling the beers, breads and bon mots around various dining room tables.

While I would have liked to have stayed abroad at least twice as long, I did my best to perk my ears and eyes to detect all of the most subtle cultural nuances, with a particular nose for attitudes and practices that reflect a more sustainable way of life. Quickly I discover many pertinent examples.

No sooner were we out of Frankfurt (home to central Europe’s busiest airport) and en route to the Hinterlands, than I am struck by the ubiquity of roadside windmills. It’s only been a year and a half since my last trip to Germany, but the increased presence of wind generators is as conspicuous and impressive as the stable of German-engineered horses that power our Audi swiftly down the Autobahn.

Moreover, the construction of these renewable energy platforms represents far more than a mere symbol or Quixotic gesture against petro-hegemony; Germany has in fact committed to closing all its nuclear power plants within the decade. This decision came in response to the Fukushima disaster, but would have been undreamable without Germany’s longtime commitment to renewable alternatives like wind and solar. Giant swaths of photovoltaic panels also appear throughout the country, oftentimes right alongside the Autobahn, areas that are uninhabitable but very accessible. (It’s like they actually put some forethought into this.)

Even so, weaning off of nuclear will not be an easy transition. They’re already complaining  — complaining is one of their great national pastimes, after all — about the imminent rise of energy prices. And the fact that neighboring France hasn’t leaked so much as a whisper about closing any of its 59 nuke plants has many Germans feeling like they’re getting the sticky end of the Schadenfreude.

Gassing up the Audi at the filling station we get another stultifying reminder of high energy costs. 1.47 Euros per liter. That’s about 8 bucks a gallon! European diesel burns somewhat more efficiently however, and the benefits are reaped when we hop on the Autobahn and do 220 km/hr, or 135 mph. Whee. Fortunately, German drivers are mindful to use luxury items like turn signals and slow lanes appropriately, and roads are very well maintained, so we feel perfectly safe, even with our one-year-old Wunderkind in the back seat. As far as diminished fuel economy at high speeds is concerned, standard manual transmissions on new German cars now have six gears (plus reverse), and seven-speed automatics are not uncommon.

A trip to the supermarket yields more surprises. For one thing, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is not the leading ingredient throughout the store; in fact, it is nowhere to be found. USDA farm subsidies have yet to flood European markets with this dubious sweetener. They still rely on good old sugar, generally derived from native sugar beets, as opposed to the cane sugar that Americans extract from the Third World (and Florida). Neither does HFCS’s partner in crime, the super-sized soft drink, appear on the scene.

Other evidence also suggests that corporate policy makers do not run the country. Bound by government regulations, bio-chemical companies can’t stuff your groceries with genetically engineered constituents without stating as much on the packaging. Europeans have expressed an interest in knowing what sort of ingredients and technologies go into their foods, and food producers have been made to comply. Even where profits may be jeopardized, the public interest comes first.

Banking regulations, as further example, make it harder to get credit cards and for non-residents to open bank accounts. Consequently, Germans do not see the same sort of predatory lending practices and Ponzi pyramids to the sky, nor the kind of billionaire investor class that we have, all of which conspire to drive a deep wedge into the socio-economic strata and widen the yawning wealth gap. But statistics do suggest that Germans’ personal debt ratios are quickly gaining on ours. Despite their pragmatic proclivities, the temptation to indulge now and pay later can be difficult to resist, especially in times like these.

Finally, returning home from the market, we cram our groceries into the fridge, a moderately-sized kitchen appliance that many Americans would confuse with a dish cupboard. And yet there is ample room to accommodate our fresh produce. For some reason, the German fridge is not overflowing with odds and ends boasting decade-long shelf-lives, and so does not need to be the size of a walk-in closet.

Smaller cars and smaller refrigerators. Larger wind and photovoltaic power stations. Narrower traffic lanes and waistlines (though growing). Wider selections of beer and finally, of preeminent importance to the beleaguered globetrotter, bathtubs deep enough to get your neck wet. And now that we’ve reached the bathroom, I could launch into my polemic on the superiority of German toilets, but alas, no. All I can say is: tanks but no tanks.

If I’d had a little more time, I probably would have visited a doctor for a regular check-up, maybe seen a dentist. Might have even enrolled my daughter in a good multi-lingual pre-school. But no. I’m a product of the Central Coast, a victim of the slo life, and have not the temperament for efficiency, discipline or weather. Remove me from the happiest city in America for more than a week, and I’m utterly helpless.

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