Friday, September 28, 2012

Why energy efficiency takes persistence

One of my favorite authors of the 1980s was Amory Lovins. He was an energy efficiency advocate who preached that it was a LOT cheaper to save energy than figure out ways to generate more. He called reduction in demand "negawatts" a bit of clever wordsmithing that got him a MacArthur "genius" grant. And to his credit, he actually went out and built a house incorporating all the energy-efficiency ideas floating around western Colorado at the time. We never saw how well this all worked and it was silly expensive—PV panels in those days were so expensive, even NASA cringed. But as an example of the kind of solution that emerged from the nexus of academia, grantsmanship, and those hippie contractors that built Aspen, his efforts were quite remarkable.

There is nothing particularly novel about designing for energy efficiency. There are places on earth such as Scandinavia and Germany where the obsession with energy efficiency permeates any conversation where it is remotely relevant—and this has been true since forever. It's an idea beyond rational debate. The only question is, How deep into this subject are you willing to explore?

My brother got interested in energy efficiency because he was appalled at the stupidity of building a box out in the sun and then cooling it at great cost using five tons of air conditioning. So he was interested in negawatts too, only he was coming at it from a whole different direction. He was a small-time builder who took on most any job that paid the bills. This versatility would allow him to eventually become a construction supervisor who enjoyed the tricky challenges of building churches and performing arts centers. This was not a world where if you ran over budget, you merely wrote another grant proposal. And if something only sort of worked, the lawyers appeared. For him, energy efficiency was a worthy goal but it had to be affordable and it had to work as advertised.

In 1991, after thinking about the problem for several years, he decided to build a home for his wife and kids using the energy-efficiency ideas he could glean from his central Florida environment. He had bought some rural property off the road running between Orlando and Titusville. Titusville is an interesting place—it is home to NASA so is one of those ghettos for rocket scientists. It is also the home for Florida's Solar Research Center so my bother managed to enlist some formidable intellectual firepower for his project. His radiant barrier was suggested to him by the same guy who designed the insulation package for the Lunar Excursion Module. And since he was building his own house, he had a pretty clear understanding for how much theory he could put into practice.

Twenty years later, his house now has documentation for being a net zero house. Yes it took PV cells to get his electrical bills to zero and he didn't buy them until 2008, but his house was already remarkably comfortable even when the air conditioner wasn't running. And when PV cells finally did become affordable, his roof was at the correct angle facing the proper direction because of decisions made in 1992.

I am very happy he is finally getting the deserved coverage for his efforts.

This treehouse was one of the few projects we built together as kids—25' off the ground. We didn't even have a freaking saw. But it held together all summer and was the delight of the neighborhood kids. It only cost us $2.00 to build. That's my brother sitting outside of the treehouse on the left. He was utterly fearless.

A 20 Year Old Energy Efficient House Goes to Net Zero in Florida

Posted by Allison Bailes on Tue, Sep 25, 2012

Steve Larson, a builder and home energy rater in Florida, recently sent me an email with his energy bills for February through July of this year. When you subtract out the monthly service charges, he paid only $5.35 for electricity during those six months. That's right — less than a dollar a month for electricty...and then $9.88 a month for the service charge. "Saving energy has been my passion for a long time," Larson wrote. Since he added the solar electric system to the house in 2008, producing it has become a passion, too.

He didn't start with a net zero energy home, which has enough onsite power production to offset the energy consumption, but he did start with a mighty efficient one. Larson built the house in 1991-92 (sounds almost like my green home building project, 2001-03). Here are some of the spec's that make it so energy efficient:
  • 2144 square feet of conditioned floor area
  • Walls: R-19 fiberglass batts with R-3 foamboard on the outside
  • Advanced framing: 2x6 studs 24" on center with insulated corners and T-walls (intersections)
  • Ceiling: ~R-50 insulation (~R-30 blown fiberglass on top of R-19 fiberglass batts)
  • Windows: none on West side, only one on East side, South-facing windows shaded by 6' porch
  • 18 SEER 3 ton air conditioner
  • Air leakage: 3.4 ACH50
  • Duct leakage: 2.7 cfm 25 per 100 square feet of conditioned floor area
  • Water heaing: solar
  • Orientation: long axis along East-West line
If you have a feel for those numbers, you can tell it's a pretty good house. Without the photovoltaic modules, the HERS Index for this house is 65. Remember - this house was built 20 years ago! A HERS Index of 65 means it's 35% more efficient than the same home built to the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), so it was 35% better than a code that came 15 years after the house was built! 
In 2008, Larson added a 5 kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic (PV) system to the house. That didn't take them all the way to net zero, though because he also has a huge garage and air-conditioned shop. So he added a second 5 kW system in 2010, and that got them to where they are today, paying an electricity bill that's just $9.88 per month in service charges and rarely any charge for actual net electricity consumption. 
In case you're wondering, the first 5 kW PV system cost $40 thousand, and they got $23 thousand dollars in federal, state, and utility tax credits and rebates. $20 thousand of the incentives came from the state of Florida. The second 5 kW system cost only $28 thousand dollars, a 30% drop in just two years. 
The HERS Index of the home including the energy production from the solar modules is an impressive minus 14. A HERS Index of zero means that the home produces just as much energy as it uses, no more and no less. According to the HERS Index, their home exceeds the net zero energy threshold. "It has been a very comfortable home to live in for the last 20+ years, but the $9.88 electric bills have us in a very nice position. My wife is a very happy camper," said Larson. 
According to the elecricity bills he sent me, Larson's electricity usage is generally in the range of 500 to nearly 1000 kilowatt-hours, mostly toward the lower end. Some months they produce more electricity than they use, as you see in the meter readings to the left, and other months they use more than they produce. The snippet at left is from their May electricity bill, and they used 490 kWh that month while producing 965 kWh. They generally run a surplus, as you can see in the bottom number, which is the running total of their electricity production versus consumption. 
Steve and his wife are helping to make Florida's nickname—the Sunshine State—true in more ways than one. "We are pretty happy how far out in front of the running of the bulls we are." Of course, someone who's been a HERS rater since 1994 is used to being out in front. more

1 comment:

  1. We have seen most of the Energy efficiency firms nyc opting for regular Energy Audits that has helped them control the major expenses.