Design Renewable Energy into Carbon-Smart Buildings

Architecture and building design must undergo a rapid transformation as a key step toward reducing carbon emissions enough to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. That was a central message from the international experts who addressed SOLAR 2006’s plenary Wednesday morning.

“What has seemed too hard becomes what simply must be done,” said Princeton University engineering professor Robert Socolow. Unlike other research fields, he noted, “experts are more worried than lay people” about the effects of uncontrolled carbon emissions. Earth Day founder and solar pioneer Denis Hayes acknowledged he is sad that “in 2006 we still have to hold a conference linking energy and climate change,” noting it’s already too late to avoid hurricane Katrina and the clones of Katrina , and probably too late to save wild polar bears. The speakers focused on what can – and must — be done immediately, with Hayes quoting Nike’s slogan: JUST DO IT! Buildings require 48 percent of U.S. energy consumption today and, because of their relatively long lives, represent a critical area for reducing fossil fuel use, said architect Edward Mazria. By 2035, three-quarters of the built environment in the U.S. will be either new or renovated, he noted. Mazria’s “2030 challenge” outlines a path for change, calling on all new buildings and developments to be designed to use half the fossil fuel energy they would typically use, with increased reduction standards over time. By 2030, all new buildings should be carbon neutral. He outlined clear ways to achieve the goals, all of which will require a massive education effort reaching architecture students who are now taught little about how to design carbon neutral buildings. “We need schools to integrate into every course and every assignment ways to dramatically reduce the need for fossils,” he said. Mazria called for designs that will result in less energy-hungry buildings by taking advantage of passive solar heating and cooling as well as siting and shading to reduce energy. He suggested innovations such as a box in the corner of programs architects use for design that would show energy requirements for different elements, and charts showing how much carbon is emitted in the manufacture of different materials. Mazria also advocated the use of new technology such as solar hot water and photovoltaic systems. Finally, he said designers and builders could purchase renewable energy from utilities. Wednesday, Mazria announced plans for a global emergency teach-in to be hosted around the world as part of the “2030 Imperative” to rapidly change the way buildings are designed. Socolow shared his notion of “stabilization wedges” of seven key areas where major change must occur to cut emissions enough to stabilize global warming in order to transform “a heroic challenge into a limited set of monumental tasks.” An important early step is to cut expected 2055 demand by 25 percent in commercial and residential buildings. Socolow outlined how to reach that goal with the use of more efficient motors, lights and cars. Socolow also called on making new buildings and power plants “carbon smart,” deterring investments in new long-lived structures that emit large amounts of carbon — such as coal-fired power plants — through the use of alternatives. Hayes called on the solar experts to pay more attention to creative revenue models, repeatedly drawing on the information revolution for inspiration. The single computer in use during the early days of the Solar Energy Research Institute performed functions that could now be done by a smart phone. While he uses Google many times a day and has never paid the company a penny, Google is awash in money, Hayes noted. “A massive global transformation is possible at rates that can’t be forecast,” Hayes said.
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