Thursday, December 09, 2004

Very Stationary Sources
Vehicles get an awful lot of the attention when it comes to improving energy efficiency and reducing emissions of local pollutants and greenhouse gases. This is natural, since their inputs and outputs are part of our daily experience of life. But as this interesting article from last week's Economist points out, energy efficient buildings represent a tremendous opportunity to cut energy use and pollution, as well as providing many other benefits.

The statistics are impressive. According to the article, buildings in the US account for roughly a third of total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly two thirds of electricity consumption. The most efficient buildings appear to be 1/3 to half again more efficient than the average. Multiplied across the entire economy, the potential savings could be comparable to increasing the market share of hybrid cars to half of new car sales in 10 years.

The key strategies for achieving these savings include the use of new building materials, better insulation, more use of natural light, and some degree of onsite power generation from wind, solar, or fuel cells. Less obvious but just as dramatic is the benefit of computer modeling during design to understand how a building interacts with its surroundings, and to optimize these relationships.

The most encouraging thing here is that this seems to be an architectural movement driven by economics, rather than aesthetics, and should thus be more sustainable. Even if oil and gas prices reverted to their historical averages--something that looks like a dim prospect anytime soon, especially for gas--there are big dollars driving these innovations. To my tastes, a side benefit is that these buildings aren't just high tech, but they look it, too. You can regard them as anything from odd to cool, but boring they're not.

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