“Energy Neutral” house in the WSJ

Here’s an article in the Wall Street Journal of December 24, 2009 about energy neutral housing, with examples in Massachusetts and California.  The attached interactive diagram is also quite fun.   What is really interesting are the comments, which bring up a number of points made elsewhere on the realist site.  Here is what I take from it all:

  • Until the price of energy efficient construction comes with a reasonable premium over normal housing costs there will simply be no mass market.  As usual one needs to compare like to like.  It’s no good saying that a energy neutral house is “only” 15% more expensive than a regular house, when the “regular” baseline isn’t identified.  Not fair if “regular” is taken as an up market custom designed house.
  • There is a lot to be said for on-site energy generation.  The losses in converting coal (or oil, or gas) to electricity, and then transporting that energy over the grid, are huge – around two thirds of the original energy content.  At the same time that consideration should not really enter the discussion; the home owner pays whatever the rate is per KWh – and makes an informed guess on how that cost will go in the future.
  • Water use, and reuse, need to be factored into energy efficient construction.  The “water problem” may well be the first and most expensive crunch of all the environmental/energy problems coming toward us.  Just one consideration is the use of waste water heat recovery – so simple and obvious but hardly used.
  • Need to take into account the whole life-cycle cost.  How long will the PV system last?  Have you accounted for repairs and maintenance?  Will future disposal costs for heavy metals etc. be much higher than now?
  • One commentor laid out the American “reality”:
    • Houses are not thought of as permanent – so they need to be sellable, and so need to conform.
    • Buying more home is better than buying more efficient home.  (That’s the perception, not the realists belief.  And it what makes translating European learning to the US so difficult)
    • Insulation makes sense (Absolutely!)
    • To get attention the monthly savings need to be in line with other necessities of life – like the cable bill or some fraction of the monthly car payment (and the health insurance bill???)
  • Build according to natural weather patterns (The realist absolutely agrees with that.  Here in NJ we have the challenge of dry, cold winters and hot (even for an Australian), humid summers.  It makes planning for moisture control and heating and cooling systems that much more interesting)
  • Another string of comments pointed out how great thorium powered nuclear generation stations will be.  Just pull a semi mounted unit into your backyard and have a lifetime of free energy.  The realist thinks it may not be quite that easy.

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