Renewable Energy in Remodeling

During a period of five years, my wife and I slowly remodeled our home in Vermont. We did whole-house projects before we even lived in the house, and now we’re down to painting the last unfinished bedroom.

We’re in Zone 6 and we have 7,771 heating-degree days (base 65 F). We burn gas in our household for hydronic baseboards. When we first started remodeling, we focused on energy-saving features. We blew in closed-cell foam. We installed 36 Energy Star windows and added a layer of insulation under the new roof. Today, the house, which had not been improved upon since it was built in 1894, burns half as much fuel as when we bought it.

Out of curiosity, I inquired locally about a rooftop solar photovoltaic system, which I was thinking of linking to a new ground-source geothermal heat pump. Could I get off petroleum and leave the grid, which draws most of its energy from Canadian hydro sources? I learned the ground-source geothermal heat pump system would run around $30,000, in addition to $20,000 to put up enough rooftop solar to power the heat pump’s compressors. (We are in a cloudy area and I’d need batteries.) Even with the rooftop solar, I’d still likely have to tap into the grid to kick over the 40-amp geothermal compressors.

At 5 percent bank rates throughout 30 years, that $50,000 price tag would cost $270 a month ($3,240 a year), minus the deductibility and the state and federal tax credits. It’s more than I pay for my gas bill now. But my gas payments are in cash, and I don’t have to sop up so much credit nor assume debt to pay the gas company.

I cost-out these energy solutions because of some information I learned from Robert Bryce’s book, Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. As glamorous as solar and wind are, you have to ask whether those systems can deliver a meaningful contribution to our grid or energy reserves. That has to be seen in light of how much energy it takes to manufacture the alternative generators and how much land is required to make them work.

Bryce points out that California’s peak electricity demand is about 52,000 megawatts. By 2020, around 17,000 megawatts of that soon will have to come from renewable sources by law. The new California-based $2 billion, 5.5-square-mile Ivanpah solar plant will provide 370 of those megawatts. That’s $2 billion to produce 0.02 percent of the total required renewables.

What’s the answer? It’s reducing overall energy demand through practices, like balanced weather barriers, insulation systems, efficient windows and—in my view—efficiently burning domestic gas with high-efficiency appliances. But reducing demand will not come from uncoordinated volunteer efforts like mine. Stricter government regulation of the energy performance of a structure is, in part, what’s required to solve our energy-consumption problems, which are very real and only will get more costly.

The 2012 implementation of the proposed International Code Council’s International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) is a good start. Its goal is a 30 percent incremental energy savings compared to the 2006 IECC. The 2012 IECC approach is ideal because it focuses on thermal-envelope performance, which is the keystone to any energy-efficient future. As a companion to the IECC regulations, we have seen a dramatic rise in innovative green-energy products and very efficient HVAC units, which will only get better because the competition is so fierce and the concern to save money (and maybe the Earth and ourselves) is so real.

I’m all for solar and wind solutions, and the more innovation the better. For instance, hyper-low-friction, rooftop mag-lev wind holds promise. But solar and wind have to be seen in the unglamorous light of their embodied energy and how much they can realistically and cost-effectively contribute to our energy future.

John D. Wagner is a green-building consultant based in Montpelier, Vt. He has written 12 books and is a frequent speaker at industry events. Wagner can be reached through www.johndwagner.com.

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