Q&A With Steven J. Strong

Steven J. Strong, President of Solar Design Associates, answers a few questions for SolarAccess.com

Introduction Steven J. Strong is President of Solar Design Associates, Inc., a group of engineers and designers dedicated to environmentally responsive buildings and the engineering and integration of Renewable Energy systems which incorporate the latest in innovative technology. Strong founded the firm in 1974 and it has earned an international reputation for the pioneering integration of Renewable Energy systems – especially solar electricity – with environmentally responsive building design. Strong has designed hundreds of solar electric power systems for buildings. Key projects have included completing the world’s first PV-powered neighborhood in Massachusetts and powering the 1996 Olympic Summer Games natatorium complex with solar electricity using the world’s largest roof-top PV power system. He is the US Representative to the International Energy Agency’s expert working group on PV-in-Buildings and has served as an advisor on energy and environmental issues for both politicians and electric utilities. The author of a number of publications, Strong and his work have been profiled extensively in the media and he has received various awards, including TIME Magazine’s “Environmental Hero of the Planet,” and the American Solar Energy Society’s highest honor for achievement in solar energy. John Downey: What would you like to see in our national energy policy? Steven Strong: We have to move forward dramatically with a comprehensive program of energy efficiency and Renewable Energy utilization. The fact is, that our main competitors in the global marketplace – Europe (mainly Germany) and Japan, are both twice as energy efficient as the US. Picture a highly-competitive international long-distance athletic event where the U.S. team has to carry 100-pound packs and our foreign competitors are only carrying 50-pound packs. Who is going to win? The future belongs to the efficient and there is no way that we can drill our way out of that problem. JD: What would an “energy infrastructure based on renewable resources” look like? SS: It will be an evolving network of smaller-scale, decentralized systems which take best advantage of the particular resources available on-site and/or in the region. It will result in a resilient system of quasi-independent sources of electricity feeding into the central distribution grid. This will dramatically reduce the risk of catastrophic failure inherent in the current system due mainly to a relatively small number of very large central generators. It will also be the fundamental shift is structure that makes a truly ‘free market’ in energy possible. JD: What is the importance of micro-power or distributed generation in building strategy? SS: Distributed generation where various on-site generation sources are operated mainly to address the load of the facility – especially those which deliver combined heat and power to the customer – will see explosive growth once the regulatory/policy issues are cleared away. JD: How are utilities like SMUD moving us toward energy independence? SS: SMUD is leading the country if not the world in the successful deployment of renewable distributed generation at ever level from residential rooftops, to commercial and industrial, grid support at the substation level. The SMUD solar program has conclusively demonstrated that: 1) solar works – allaying the concerns of other utilities about technical compatibility with the distribution grid; 2) solar is reliable and 3) solar can be done on a regional scale with dramatic cost savings. JD: Could you forecast the future of solar technologies in building design a decade from now? SS: In 1983, Boston Edison commissioned my firm to design an all-solar house incorporating trends in design and technology that would be commonplace 30 years hence. We designed and constructed a PV-powered residence where the entire roof element was an integrated solar generator providing the house with both electricity and thermal energy as well as day lighting. The house was super-insulated, had monolithic air/moisture barriers, heat-recovery ventilators, had advanced glazings and a ground-coupled geothermal heat pump for supplemental heating, cooling and hot water. There was no fossil fuel used and the house exported surplus electricity to the utility grid. Now, more than ever, I believe this is the direction we will follow. Apparently the volume homebuilders also agree as no fewer than 10 national homebuilders are now offering rooftop PV solar systems as a standard feature in their new subdivisions in California and the US solar program is providing them guidance and incentives through their ‘Zero-Energy Buildings Program’ JD: Are there some outstanding examples of secure, renewably-powered, high performance buildings you can cite as environmentally responsive? Would you describe them? SS: The solar-powered residences we have been designing for over 20 years are a reasonable example. Many of these make more electricity than they use. Work on the commercial scale has been slower to develop for obvious reasons but I would look to 4 Times Square by Fox and Fowle in New York as the first in a trend toward large-scale environmentally responsive buildings in the US. In Europe, a project in Northern Germany holds considerable interest. Known at the Mount Cenis Academy, this complex is a giant glass environmental enclosure inside of which ten commercial-scale buildings have been constructed. The environmental enclosure maintains a Mediterranean climate all year and the roof-top solar electric system generates over twice the electricity needed by the complex. JD: Do you have any final remarks? SS: Does a fish know it is living in water? America is so totally addicted to oil and we fully take it for granted. Most of the country is in officially sanctioned denial. Oil is a finite and declining resource, most of which is located in one of the world’s most troubled and unstable areas. We must begin to invest the still relatively plentiful and still relatively inexpensive reserves to build the bridge to a post-petroleum world. About the Author John Downey is a freelance writer living in New York City.
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