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Can Technology Cause Tunnel Vision?

Tunnel vision in PORTUGAL.

Heads up. The economic transformation away from fossil fuels to renewables is happening, and at a pace much quicker than you might think. That’s because the movement and the evolving markets are making the technologies more affordable, and at a phenomenal speed (see International Renewable Energy statistics and ITC extension ) which is also making access far-reaching, more so, arguably, then even the iPhone. One signal, for example, is the activity of major Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google. In the Spring, they met to explore ways to get off of coal and transition to renewables as their primary source of energy. And just in the last month, we’re learning that these companies, among others, are establishing their own energy subsidiary companies to take advantage of renewable energy markets. What they are coming to realize, and what’s been hidden in plain sight, is the obvious: the sun (above our heads) and the wind (surrounding us) are free…no cost, energy sources. The only thing needed, until now, were the mechanisms to capture, convert, and store the energy for future use.

Even major casinos including MGM and Winn have offered to pay out tens of millions of dollars in exit fees to utilities to have the opportunity to procure their own energy from renewable energy developers. So, when Silicon Valley, Fortune 500 companies, and investors clamor to be the first in taking business advantage of clean energy, other businesses including architects and engineers, who are involved in the design of buildings, ought to stop what they’re doing, take some time to think and ask: what does this all mean to me and what opportunities am I missing?

The Need
One of the most interesting things happening in this renewable energy space, among the vast majority of the players is the laser-focus solely on technology innovation. What’s missing, and is quietly sitting in the corner of the room, is the impact that design can have in deploying technologies. Design has real potential to propel forward the transformation we need to meet, what scientists around the world are warning, peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 and reductions by half by 2050. Consider this: we know that forty (40) percent of energy consumption stems from buildings. We also know that the vast majority of buildings (more than 70%) were built 20 years ago (and we can all agree that energy standards 20 years ago were quite different). Think 1996. Take these facts with humanity’s paradigm: we spend 98% of our lives indoors. Consumption isn’t going away and we (all of us in the design/construction industry) must ask ourselves: what more do we need to know to embrace this opportunity?

The Building Design Solution – Where Technology Falls Short
Here’s an example of where technology addresses one issue, but does not necessarily address the bigger issue. When the sun’s up, all is well; the solar panels on a home or building take in energy that can be converted into electricity and used contemporaneously by its occupants. When the sun’s down, the challenge kicks in. How do we store the energy that is captured during the day so that we can use it at night or on a cloudy day when we don’t have the resource available? Make no mistake, affordable storage technologies are indeed ramping up at the commercial scale to address this issue and the market around this is quickly developing. This technology trend will most definitely help balance out the “duck curve” (i.e. demand peaks when everyone gets home from work and the sun goes down) by providing a storage and later-use solution to the supply-demand problem. But while this solution is great news and meaningful progress (as are all the technology solutions now available to us), what’s missing from this global solutions debate is a bigger and broader solutions-approach to optimizing innovative technologies.

What we’re not talking about is the fact that these technologies are being housed in buildings that, if designed right, can optimize the need for these technologies. In other words, the technologies are a piece of the solution but not the end-all for carbon emissions reductions. In one word, we’re talking about “resiliency” – getting buildings designed to operate without electricity and minimal water use, and still at a comfort level that’s meaningful for its occupants. When buildings are designed or retrofitted with a basic demand-supply analysis and demand-supply modeling at the get-go (the same concept that economists use) to minimize the need for air conditioning, electricity, water, etc., we’re optimizing technology innovations and helping the world get to zero carbon emissions much quicker and more efficiently. The organizing principle for this design-centric thinking, of course, is called Net Zero (or Net Positive, depending on your ambition). This is the principle that a lot of people don’t know about, but that forces the supply world of renewables to connect with, and talk to, the demand world of actual consumption.

Net Zero = “Use-What-You-Produce”
Net zero occurs when the total amount of energy used in a building or home on an annual basis is roughly equal to the total amount of renewable energy produced. In the case of “net-positive,” the building produces more energy and potable water than it consumes (measured over the course of a year). Notably, net-zero, or net-positive design, doesn’t just apply to new construction but can also be deployed in renovations. It is a strategy where design professionals consider, analyze and model aggressive conservation design strategies for energy and water use that set the stage and create the demand framework needed for energy and water supply. This demand framework is where the rubber meets the road and is the precursor that enables renewables to meet demand.

Examples of aggressive design strategies might involve enhanced envelope performance (reduced window-to-wall ratio, improved insulation, improved glazing), enhanced lighting performance (upgrading fixtures and integrating control systems so that, for example, lights go off when occupants aren’t present or when daylighting is sufficient), optimized mechanical performance (ground source heat pumps, targeted HVAC systems); aggressive plug-load analyses, integration of rainwater collection/treatment systems, and high-end, commercially-used composting toilets. These strategies together, among others, are the kinds of design strategies that design professionals can deploy holistically, alongside the use of innovative technologies such as energy storage, to make (and convert) our built world a friend of the planet, not the enemy. As Frank Lloyd Wright mused, “Buildings, too, are children of Earth and Sun.” Consider this a call to action to architects and engineers involved in the design of buildings: get in there and help the world understand what you can do too!

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