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Renewable Energy Homes Still A Dream of the Future

Written by M. Anthony Carr on Thursday, 18 May 2006 7:00 pm
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As I was growing up, everything was supposed to happen by the year 2000. All cars would be running on electricity or alternative fuels. All clean air was supposed to be depleted, and we would all have portable phones (well, we got that one right). Another item I thought would be in use a lot more by the 21st Century was the integration of renewable energy into our daily living at home.

At one time I wanted to build myself an earth home (meaning 1 or two sides of the house would be underground); heated by solar power; and operated by photovoltaic panels, which would convert solar energy into electricity stored in a bank of batteries. Ah, yes, the dream of green living.

Unfortunately, builders have not seen the public support swelling for such alternative, renewable energy sources, thus houses are continuing to built with energy technologies that haven't changed at there core over the last several decades: central air conditioners, forced air furnaces, heat pumps, fossil fuels and natural gas. At least the politicians are getting it. A recent Pew Research study showed that support for more funding of renewable energy from both political parties is growing in the face of the latest oil crisis. In addition, research continues to bring these technologies into an affordable price range so that they can be used on a more massive level.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory , operated by the Department of Energy , is the nation's primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

The group operates on a $220 million budget, dedicated to the development of renewable energy. An example of the group's mission was depicted in a Habitat for Humanity house build last year in Wheat Ridge, Col. The home, on Carr Street in that town, is a net zero energy house, meaning it creates as much energy as it consumes -- now that's what I'm talking about.

Built under the Department of Energy's Building America Program, "The house features superinsulated walls, floors, and ceilings; efficient appliances; a solar water heating system; heat-recovery ventilation system to assure indoor air quality; compact fluorescent lighting; and windows coated with thin layers of metallic oxide to help keep heat in during the winter and out during the summer. The home's 4-kilowatt photovoltaic system is sized to produce excess energy in the summer to balance out winter consumption," according to the NREL website.

Just in case you were wondering if this type home is only for the eccentric energy consumer, Pulte Homes, one of the largest home builders in the country, is working with Building America Program to develop home construction that consumes 50 percent less energy than the average home consumes today.

An online flier at NREL.gov about the Pulte homes (built in several Las Vegas, Nev., suburbs) describes the materials packages used to build the houses:

Windows: Spectrally selective glass, which lets visible light through, but keeps the solar heat gain out. This lowers the cooling load during the summer and reduces the fading of furniture caused by sunlight.

Roofing System: Unvented roofing system, which changes the home's thermal barrier from the ceiling to the roof deck. Ductwork for air conditioning and heating is located "inside," surrounded by attic air at close to 80-degrees Fahrenheit rather than as much as 140-degrees Fahrenheit, as in a typical attic.

Heating System: Smaller heating system, since the house can be so energy efficient in the heating mode that the gas water heater located in the garage provides hot water and also space heating in many houses. In other houses, the furnace is downsized and uses an efficient sealed-combustion design.

Cooling System: Smaller air-conditioning unit, since improved air-tightness and energy efficiency measures allow the air conditioner to be downsized by 30 percent.

As the auto industry has begun to respond to our energy crisis with the introduction of hybrid and alternative fuel cars, we can only hope the building industry will begin to do the same on a mass-production basis. The above products and others like them is a good start.

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