Green Buildings in the New Energy Age

Bruce Nagy
Toronto, Canada
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Bruce Nagy writes for international journals on clean tech innovations and energy economics, and is currently working on a technology and policy guidebook for the new energy age. He advises leading government figures, corporations, and universities, and is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in Canada.

Climate change offers the greatest opportunity in history for the human race to demonstrate its ingenuity. For post-war generations in the developing world, it provides a chance to establish ameaningful legacy. For the developing world, it accommodates a catalytic leapfrog into the forefront of the world’s proud and progressive nations. The importance of green buildings as part of these opportunities cannot be overstated.

Buildings are the key

Buildings are responsible for more emissions than any other contributor, represent about half of our energy use and they also have the potential to provide a dominant everyday reminder of the importance of change, and our ability to triumph over the difficulties facing our planet. Superior approaches to human shelter will contribute more than any other initiative to the psychosocial momentum now needed to collectively alter our course toward a better tomorrow.

Three climate change priorities

By looking at end use categories for energy, we see that we must focus on cleaner building and vehicle technologies. In both cases, it is of course a choice between systems using carbon fuels and systems using clean electricity. Very simply, we need clean tech buildings, clean tech vehicles and clean electricity generation. Promoting these three should be seenas most important when we ask ‘What should I be doing?’

The most proven non-carbon ways to generate electricity are hydro generation, wind turbines, and solar farms. Equally important is conservation; using less energy, while still heating and cooling buildings and keeping the lights on. As world population grows, it may seem impossible to conserve energy, but we can, if we adoptgreenbuilding technologies.

Existing vs. New buildings

Buildings last a long time, perhaps 50-100 years. Most of them have been poorly built, leaking energy, and equipped with inefficient furnaces or cooling systems. It won’t bepossible to change this overnight. More than 90% of buildings are heated by fossil fuels or cooled and powered by electricity generated using fossil fuels.

Under normal circumstances we replace only about 2% of old buildings each year. Computer modelling experts say to avoid catastrophe, this should happen three times faster. We must change the way we design new buildings, and more importantly, we mustinitiate a massive worldwide building retrofit program to make existing buildings greener.

Green buildings start with better envelopes

In Germany the building code now requires superinsulation called the Passivhaus standard to contain more heating and cooling energy and waste less. China has adopted Passivhaus and already has thousands of projects planned. LEED and other international building standards also call for better building envelopes.

Because we need natural light, windows are critical. Passivhaus designs demonstrate that properly insulated buildings with multi-pane windows, and a small boiler will suffice even in northern Europe and Canada. The reverse is true in hot climates like the UAE. With a better envelope, less cooling energy and less cooling equipment are needed. Before installing an expensive, oversized solar or geothermal system, we must ensure the energy will not be wasted.

Similarly, we now emphasize passive solar design fundamentals, including siting, orientation, blinds, shades, and louvers. Weeliminate thermal bridges and incorporate proven natural features, like the updated version of the ancient cooling tower concept used in the very sustainable Masdar City near Dubai.

As building envelopes improve, ventilation must be provided without bringing in too much fresh air and wastefully expelling energy. Energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) that re-use energy are becoming standard features in European and North American houses and multi-unit residential towers. Similarly, drain heat recovery products reuse the water heat energy that would otherwise be wasted down the drain. Municipalities in Europe, China, Canada and Australia are also re-using heat energy from sewage,for district heating systems.

Ground source and water source heating & cooling

The Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre (SZDLC) in Al Ain, UAE employs a huge ERV, ground source cooling technology, and is also designedwith parts of the building underground. These last two measures take advantage of the difference between outside air temperatures and below ground temperatures. Ground source heat pump technology is now used all over the world.

In Toronto, Canada, the world’s largest deep-water cooling system provides air conditioning to about 100 high-rise buildings drawing on very cold temperatures in Lake Ontario. A similar system is used in Hawaii. In Halifax, Canada, extremely cold ocean water is pumped from the harbour into deep wells in the groundrock during winter, then extracted to provide building air conditioning in summer.

Solar thermal heating & cooling

In addition to photovoltaic (PV) solar, solar wall technologyis now used to pre-heat air that flows into a building, and solar thermal panels pre-heat water for space heating and domestic hot water. A Swedish company has combinedsolar thermal panels with special lithium chloride salt absorption chillers to produce solar coolingin many countries, including hotplaces like Al Ain.

Solar pv explosion

In a single year, 2013, more solar was installed in California than in all previous years in history combined. Photovoltaic panels mounted on rooftops, or assembled into huge utility scale solar farms are proliferating quickly in the USA, China, and the

world. The cost of solar dropped about 80% in the past six years, and investment isshifting. Wind and geothermal costs have also decreased dramatically. Coal, gas, oil and nuclear are quickly becoming too expensive, dirty, dangerous and unpredictable to compete with renewables.

With more rooftop-mounted panels there will be less need for power distribution infrastructure and massive central power stations, including, nuclear, coal, gas, and renewables. Solar industry officials looking at new innovations are predicting that some day, solar paints and solar glass will make it possible to turn any window or building surface into a solar panel. Revolutionary. All this may sound wonderful, but can wemake it happen? Fortunately, big money isshifting its focus. Investment in new clean tech now exceeds investment in carbon fuels.

Economic impacts:
Climate change is the best thing that ever happened to business

The new energy age offers unprecedented opportunities for companies to benefit from the 21st century’s fastest growing businesses, namely the development of conservation and clean technologies related to buildings and transportation. The clean tech revolution will be bigger than hydro, the railroad, or the telephone.

Clean tech costs have dropped dramatically. Clean tech giants like Vestas and GE are declaring record profits. Insurers have warned corporations that they must include climate change in their strategies. Risks includecorporate assets lost to extreme weather, negligence liability, and unconscionable working conditions. Shareholders care about the money that can be saved by clean tech and will not tolerate managers ignoring the huge growth opportunities of clean tech products and expertise. The investment trend is toward ethical, clean companies and divestment from carbon-bubble companies. Governments will soon be forced to reduce carbon fuel subsidies, tax breaks, and enact more polluterpay regulations.

In many ways the final piece of the puzzle, the backing of clean tech by the global business community is a key to saving our planet.History has repeatedly reinforced that individual self-interestand corporate economic interests do the most to drive change. Thankfully it has become crystal clear that climate change is an irresistible opportunity; and green buildings are the heart of that opportunity.

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