This article by Clarke Snell was originally printed in the New Life Journal.
When we meet with clients in our office for the first time to discuss their desires for a “green” house design, they seldom talk about pivotal but boring things like insulation levels or conscientious weatherization detailing. In fact they very often know very little about what might make the house itself “green”. Invariably, though, they do discuss alternatives to conventional energy production. Solar electricity, hydronic in-floor heating, and solar hot water are almost always mentioned. That’s a good thing because our buildings are responsible for the lion’s share of our societal energy use and consequently play a huge role in our present pollution and environmental degradation problems. To help us all get a bead on our energy use options, I sat down recently with Ole Sorensen of Solar Dynamics, a renewable energy system design and installation company based in Asheville.
Most of our clients say they want to take advantage of alternative energy technologies, but in my experience few know what that really means. What is “alternative energy”?
I try to stay away from the word “alternative”. To me “alternative energy” is coal and propane. In the final analysis, the only energy sources that make sense, the ones that need to be our primary sources, are those that can be part of a sustainable lifestyle. My ultimate goal is sustainability. A sustainable energy source is one that can be continually renewed. In other words, things that we don’t have to worry about running out of. As it turns out, almost all renewable energy on this planet comes from the sun. Every ½ hour enough energy from the sun hits the earth’s surface to power human civilization for a year. In other words, we don’t even need to be efficient, we just need to commit to tapping this basically infinite resource in it’s various forms.
The most basic solar energy is direct sunlight which can be used to heat buildings through passive solar design. Direct sunlight can also be used to heat water or some other liquid to create domestic hot water and energy for in-floor hydronic heating. We can also turn that same sunlight into electricity using photovoltaics. Wind-power and hydro-power are also forms of electricity whose power source is the sun. The sun heats air to, in combination with the rotation of the earth, create wind. The sun also evaporates water to create rain and other precipitation, the force that creates a constant cycle of falling water on the planet. We use both wind and falling water to turn turbines that create electricity. The energy held within ocean waves is another largely untapped source of solar energy that is starting to be commercialized for electricity production.
There is constant and exciting innovation in the world of renewable energy technology. However the tech stuff is only half of the equation to creating a sustainable approach to energy. The other part is lifestyle adjustment. Billy Jonas has an environmental song that my kids and I love that repeats the line, “It all comes from the groun-duh.” It’s a basic and profound point. All we have is this one earth. Duh. We simply have to find a balance between what we take and what we leave behind. I’ve seen statistics claiming that if everyone lived like we do in the US, we’d need five planets. Talk about unsustainable!
This is a point that really scares me. I know that we in the US are out of control in terms of our energy consumption and then it seems like the rest of the world is frantically trying to catch up with us. There just isn’t enough planet to go around. How do you see us getting out of this mess?
To illustrate let me tell you a story from my own life. I’m from Denmark and started out in a highly academic environment. I then decided to move into boat building. I couldn’t get my fellow classmates to approach the process academically. We had a hard time communicating. My teacher pointed out to me that my classmates and I were talking two different languages and asked me the question, “Who would have the easier time changing their language, you or them?” I realized that it was up to me to bridge the gap because my background gave me the skills.
I see our present energy and environmental problems in the same way. The rich industrialized countries are the ones using the most energy and creating the most pollution. We’re also the ones with the technology and resources to find sustainable solutions. It’s up to us to solve this problem, to change our language so to speak. Rather than having poorer countries struggling to catch up to us in our present consumption patterns, which is simply impossible, we can show the way for them to utilize renewable energy to prosper sustainably. The concept is not that hard to grasp. We are the ones who have the knowledge and are using the excess. It’s up to us to create enough for others. The wonderful thing is that we actually have the know-how to make this happen if we have the will.
As someone who has lived in this country almost all my life, that’s a little hard to imagine. Our whole paradigm is based on trying to get ahead, seemingly at any cost. How do we go about changing the paradigm. How do we go from being the problem to solving it?
We are already in the middle of the paradigm shift. It’s you and I and all our fellow citizens who create change and most people today want sustainable energy. There is a demand for it. The problem is that in many cases the solutions are not available to everyone because they are too expensive. Since I got into this business, PV (solar electric) panels have gone from 12 to 20% efficiency. In other words, panels now transform into electricity 20% of the solar energy that hits them. That’s an amazing technological improvement in a short time, but clearly there is a lot more energy there for us to capture. We simply need more research and development money to reap even greater improvements in efficiency that will allow prices to come down even further. If we really got behind renewables, put our money where our mouth is so to speak, we could be getting a lot more and paying a lot less.
Another problem is one of scale. As with most things, the smaller the system, the more you pay per unit. PV is just too expensive for most people to put on their houses right now, that’s why most PV installations are commercial. It’s the same with wind power. Commercial wind companies won’t even consider a project unless it’s in the 10 to 20 million dollar range. Smaller and the economics just don’t add up. I think we need more options than simply residential and large commercial. We need community and neighborhood renewable power plants, large enough so that they are affordable but not so large that we necessarily have to wait for the large power companies to get on board.
Countries with high percentages of renewable energy, Denmark for example produces about 20% of its electricity demand from wind, are doing things like this. They have some residential and apartment buildings, but also a lot of larger commercial projects. Germany has a single PV array covering the equivalent of 11 soccer fields. Another array stretches more than ½ mile along the highway to the Munich airport. Germany made a very conscious decision in the 1990’s to go solar. To put it simply, people there were willing to pay more to move toward sustainability and that created the political will to get the government involved. That’s what we need in this county. We need to step up to the plate in support of renewables and then hold our government accountable to make a meaningful transition to renewable energy.
Okay, so far you’ve been talking about the big picture which is of course very important, but it can also be a formula for inaction because we tend to feel overwhelmed with the scale of the problem. It seems that thinking globally and acting locally really fits in this context. You started your business to be part of the solution and your solution is making renewable energy available to residential customers. How does someone go about making renewable energy a part of their daily life, in other words a part of their present or planned house?
When someone comes to me, the first thing we do is discuss their dream. Every situation is unique and depends on a client’s energy consumption, square footage, sun or wind exposure, budget, and current tax credits. Honestly, people almost always begin with dreams of a lot of technology, then we start talking price and many people back off. We then look in their budget for the thing that will make the biggest difference. I like to look at it in terms of a “sustainability budget”. You budget for other things, why not sustainability. Let’s say you have $15,000 in your sustainability budget. In other words, you want to invest $15,000 now in moving toward energy sustainability. You’ll get this money back in utility bill savings over time, but it’s an upfront expenditure. What’s the best way to spend that money?
Well, energy production isn’t the first thing to consider. That’s my dilemma as a renewable energy installer. I need to keep in business, but I also have a responsibility to the planet and society. So when someone comes to me with limited funds, I tell them first to reduce their energy needs by building smaller and by creating an efficient building envelope, in other words installing more insulation and paying attention to weatherization. Next, I tell them to choose construction methods that will create a long-lasting durable building that won’t require a lot of maintenance. Then we talk about reducing energy usage because the less energy you use, the more affordable your renewable energy system will be.
At this point we’re ready to talk about energy. Let’s go back to the original example of a modest $15,000 sustainability budget. My suggestion would be to spend $8,000 for additional insulation and $7,000 for a quality solar hot water system. You’ll get more bang for your buck this way than spending the $15,000 on a solar electric system. Don’t get me wrong. I applaud and support clients who make a commitment to PV. I’m just realistic that for the majority of people right now there are more cost effective ways to get the same positive environmental effects. If a client can’t afford PV, then my “best of both worlds” solution here is to install solar hot water and plan for an eventual PV system by putting in conduit and other inexpensive infrastructure as part of the initial construction process. If the budget just really can’t support even solar hot water, we can also install transmission lines in the wall and take other steps to make the eventual installation easy, efficient, and more cost effective. In my opinion, a solar hot water rough-in should be as important as a front door in new construction.
What about hydronic in-floor heating. Why do you install these systems?
Hydronic heating can use either radiators or can be set in a slab or under a floor. These systems, especially the in-floor variety, are sustainable because they are incredibly efficient. The boilers I use are 97% efficient and don’t require energy hog fans as with air source systems. In addition, hydronics can easily utilize direct solar radiation as a heat input. The same solar hot water heating system we’ve been discussing can do double duty as a heat source for your radiant heating system. In my opinion, hydronic heating has the lowest environmental impact of any heating system available, including burning wood. Of course, a big selling point for hydronics is comfort. In-floor hydronic heat creates a wonderful, mellow heat that doesn’t dry the air or make noise while it’s running.
One of the common complaints I hear about renewable energy systems is that the exposed machinery is “ugly”. What’s your response to that criticism?
Personally, I can get ruthless when it comes to aesthetics. If the most efficient car in the world looked like a piece of cheese, I’d drive a piece of cheese. Of course, as a company we are sensitive to and try to accommodate the aesthetic needs of our clients. To give solar panels as an example, at our latitude and with most roof pitches, it is going to be more efficient to raise roof-mounted panels at an angle to the roof. However, sometimes customers want their panels to lie flat on the roof because they feel it looks better. If our analysis tells us that this will result in only an insignificant reduction in system efficiency, we’re happy to do it. If, on the other hand, that isn’t the case, then we feel the need to stand our ground and install the panels at an angle to the roof. In the end, this always results in a much happier customer. We have to hold on to the big picture: our goal of sustainability. If it means getting over a perception of what you consider to be ugly, then so be it.
Here’s another example. One of our wind power customers had a hard time convincing his neighbors and the press that the wind turbine he planned to install wouldn’t be an eye sore. It wasn’t until we finished the installation that they realized what a simple, eloquent machine this was and not as huge as they imagined in their minds. One journalist even apologized and wrote a second positive article about it. Education is the key. When people complain about how ridge-top wind-power systems will adversely effect their “view shed”, I tell them that there won’t be a view shed without wind-power. In the last few years, there has been a marked deterioration in air quality even in our rural area. That’s not haze, people, that’s smog.
I like to say that sustainability and denial are archenemies. They just can’t work together. We have to decide to let go of our denial and embrace sustainability. To contact Ole and for more information on Solar Dynamics:
Phone: 828-665-8507 or 828-231-9106