The Science of Sustainability

An Optimistic Look Forward at Energy Policy

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This 1928 home in Albemarle County, Virginia recently
underwent a renovation through the EarthCraft Virginia
existing homes renovation program. After the renovation,
electricity use dropped by 24% and energy costs dropped
by 42%.

Home Energy Magazine is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a special May/June issue. We're taking the opportunity to look back at the past several decades of energy policy in America, and look ahead to what may come. Here's a sneak preview of some of what we're thinking.

Alan Meier, Senior Executive Editor, and Steve Greenberg, Technical Editor, among others, lived through the first energy crisis precipitated by the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and its aftermath. They remember the sudden interest in energy efficiency and renewable energy; the proliferation of solar water heaters on the roofs of homes that broke down quickly, had no one trained to fix them, and have become rusted monuments to the best of intentions gone wrong; the sudden and short lived gain in the average car’s fuel efficiency. They also recall some major successes: the huge and lasting increase in appliance efficiency, especially refrigerators; the success of the Energy Star program; and California’s progressive Title 24 building standards.

Alan, in a yet-to-be-published editorial, has been musing on what will happen after the billions of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) have been spent on building and retrofitting more efficient and sustainable buildings. Will it be the same three steps forward, two steps back pattern that we’ve seen before? Not so, according to Alan, if we:

  • require third-party evaluation and certification that buildings and appliances perform as well as they were designed to perform;
  • make sure that we retrofit homes to be more efficient before we install expensive, but sexy, solar electric panels on the roof;
  • aggressively target middle and upper-middle class homes for energy retrofits and not just low-income homes; and
  • train the people to do the work described above well, and consistently.

Steve came up with some powerful images to stimulate our thinking about the future of energy efficiency:

We've been on a ramp with a rather gradual (and usually upward, with notable exceptions) slope. Suddenly the ramp gets so steep it looks like a wall. If we make it to the new, much higher level, what does the terrain look like? Do we go off a cliff, completing a boom and bust cycle the likes of which we've never seen? Or is there a reasonable ramp down to a sustainable level?

I lived through the lines for gasoline, though I couldn’t yet drive. I've observed the resulting interest in miles per gallon instead of horsepower; the return to a horsepower-mentality; and the recent switch back to a concern about miles per gallon. My family had a great experience with our new-fangled heat pump in the early 70s. My Dad, an engineer and all-around handy man, first got me interested in how houses and cars work during that time. I guess I vote for a steep, but not impossible ramp up in efficiency, followed by a less intense, slow and gradual climb that continues for a long time, with sudden jumps due to new, undreamed of (or only just dreamed of) technology. The pressure will come from high energy prices and people starting to feel the real effects of global warming and unhealthy air. I don't think these things will change anytime soon.

 

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Category: Energy, Engineering, Environment

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Jim Gunshinan

About the Author ()

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.