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Green Building Curmudgeon

I’m Beginning to Really Hate Eco-Bling

My problems with photovoltaic systems, geothermal systems, and other expensive stuff

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One of the entrants in the Solar Decathlon, this unique house features lots of solar panels. While these projects are a great learning experience and research opportunity for the students who create them, we shouldn't mistake them for easily implemented real-world solutions.
One of the entrants in the Solar Decathlon, this unique house features lots of solar panels. While these projects are a great learning experience and research opportunity for the students who create them, we shouldn't mistake them for easily implemented real-world solutions. This commercial photovoltaic (PV) installation on a commercial building near my home was the beneficiary of extensive state and federal grants and tax credits.

On hearing the news that three photovoltaic (PV) module manufacturers, at least one a recipient of federal loan money, have recently declared bankruptcy, I once again started thinking about my frustration with people’s attachment to putting cool “stuff” on their buildings before making sure that those buildings actually operate well.

I am reminded of what one of my industrial design professors used to call “dingles” — the pieces of shiny, useless sheet metal glued onto consumer products like cameras and radios; pieces that when pried off, hit the ground and go “dingle.” Now, I realize that solar panels, geothermal HVAC, heat-pump water heaters, and the like are not as useless as applied sheet-metal decorations, but when you put these things on otherwise poorly performing buildings, they are not that much better.

I have no problem with the PV arrays used by people like my fellow GBA blogger Martin Holladay, who lives off the grid, or Ted Clifton, who designs and builds net-zero-energy homes that include PV. But I have seen too many starter castles that are only marginally high performance homes with PV and geothermal HVAC systems because they can afford to put them in (and think they’re cool).

Let’s incentivize good building and behavior

Why not give people incentives for energy savings based on what they actually use, rather than what they spend?

Since energy rates in the U.S. tend to be low, most homeowners find that investments in energy efficiency and renewables usually don’t provide a fast enough return on investment. Instead of providing financial incentives for spending money on better buildings and renewable energy, how about switching those incentives to consumption? This could be done through energy rates that increase as use goes up, adjusted for the number of people in a home, or some similar measure. It may be complicated to manage, but if my experience with incentive programs and their obtuse and impenetrable documentation requirements is any guide, I don’t think it would be all that hard to do.

If someone wants to use less energy by living in a smaller house and living a lean life, they could do so with minimal expense and benefit handsomely. If someone else wants to build a super-efficient house and manage it well, they would also benefit by paying less for their energy. If yet another person built a house that wasn’t that efficient and installed PV or geothermal or something else expensive to save energy, they would get some benefits, but they wouldn’t be paid just for installing the fancy stuff.

Misguided financial incentives

My biggest problem is with the way financial incentives are distributed between building efficiency, equipment efficiency, and renewable energy. In my mind, it is mostly set up backwards – the biggest incentives are for renewables and the least for building efficiency.

In my perfect world, incentives for renewables would only be provided when all possible measures to reduce building loads were employed first. I just think that giving people grants or tax credits for spending big bucks on solar panels and geothermal wells that are attached to otherwise relatively inefficient buildings is a very poor use of our money.

The folks at Efficiency First tried their best to change this behavior, but their HomeStar program just twisted in the wind before dying in Congress — not surprising, since they didn’t have the lobbying clout that manufacturers of expensive products do. I see this a just another example of “product” winning the battle over “process” — in my mind, the opposite of what is right.


  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    Good blog, Carl
    You're right, of course. I made a similar point in a May 2009 blog: Thinking About Net Zero Energy.

    The incentives and tax breaks always seem to go to people who manufacture shiny things, rather than to the lowly air-sealing contractors.

  2. wjrobinson | | #2

    We need less programs not
    We need less programs not more. People manipulate programs leaving the outcome never as desired.

    Higher costs via a set tax rate is by far the simplest way to add a contrived market force that would get the real results desired. IMO. We are all too taxed now so politicians won't legislate this today. What they need to do is trade one existing tax like part of our property taxes for example for this one.

    Good points and topic Carl.

  3. user-741168 | | #3

    I recall back in the solar scare of the late 1970s, seeing fake solar panels out on the east coast, that were designed to look like the real thing, and didn't require a hookup to anything. Many years ago, when cell phones were not cheap, my daughter told me about a classmate who had a fake cell phone he could hold to his ear and talk into.

    Perhaps we can only get perspective by taking eco-bling to its absurd conclusion.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    The Chinese can make them
    I bet a Chinese factory can start making fake solar modules for only $1 a square foot.

    I once proposed that Tyvek or Typar should make housewrap with a photographic imprint of painted clapboard siding. That way all of the people in northern New England who can't afford to finish their house could install housewrap, and the house would look good from a distance.

    Maybe the manufacturers of steel roofing can manufacture roofing panels that look like PV from a distance. Cheap bling!

  5. Jesse Thompson | | #5

    Not bling any more!

    Just last year, I was talking just like you. Then I ran cost numbers on PV from this year.

    It's not bling anymore, and PV might even be getting cheaper than conservation in some parts of the country. Shocking, I know, but you really need to re-run cost numbers based on what has happened to solar power this year.

    A 1kW array makes 1,300 kWH / year in our area. Over 25 years, that's 32,500 kWH. We are seeing unsubsidized costs of PV (before tax credits!) of $5,000 / kW. That means you are paying $0.15 / kWH for your power if you can prepay without financing.

    That's CHEAPER than grid power in our area @ $0.16 - $0.18 / kWH! Let alone NYC or CT, where consumers are over $0.20 / kWH. Maybe down south with lots of climate shredding cheap coal electricity it's still bling, but in the Northeast, we've already hit the tipping point with PV. Tack on tax credits, and in NYC you might be paying $0.10 / kWH from PV. That's less than half the cost of dirty electricity! That's cheaper than insulation!

    Maybe, just maybe, the years of subsidy are suddenly paying off? Seems to have been exactly the plan, use tax credits to stimulate the industry, so it can compete directly with fossil fuel electricity on its own...

    Everyone please tell me what's wrong about this cost estimation, it's been seeming too good to be true this summer, but it might be turning conventional wisdom on its head.

  6. user941025 | | #6

    Good article, but I wonder where you stand on existing housing stock--small houses, even--in need of improvement. This blog is hot on the heels of another feature: "Never Promise You Can Stop Ice Damming." I have no doubt that there are thousands of households here in Minneapolis who would love the subsidized weatherization program to come in and really solve their persistent insulation and air-sealing problems, but a top-to-bottom search-and-seal-and-insulate operation is of course no small feat. At some point, funding for weatherization presumably has diminishing returns to a scale that getting a subsidized PV array slapped on the roof does not.

  7. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #7

    More thoughts
    Thanks to everyone for the great comments.

    Jesse - I won't argue with your math, but it doesn't really address my point that between low cost building improvements (usually just not doing a crappy job) and behavior change, we can dramatically reduce our demand, something that should be required before anyone subsidizes renewable power installations on individual buildings. I recall that a town in Alaska had their power line break, requiring them to rely on diesel generators for all electricity for months until the line was repaired. Through conservation they reduced their demand dramatically in order to keep their costs in line. It's not that hard, we just don't have the will to do it.

    I agree that there is a point of diminishing returns for energy retrofits. I have my problems with the deep retrofit people who think that they can make any existing building close to net zero. My opinion is that some buildings are simply not worth renovating and should either be abandoned, left as is, or deconstructed and the parts reused. That said, I would still like to see as much energy efficiency work performed AND people taught how to reduce energy use through behavior before people start putting up solar panels.

    Just the other day I saw at least three ceiling fans running on porches in my neighborhood with no one outside. Just turning things off would make a difference.

  8. Jesse Thompson | | #8

    My note came from a


    My note came from a recent conversation with a fellow architect who was helping a client fix a CMU uninsulated block building in Brooklyn.

    After really careful financial analysis, every conservation measure was more expensive than adding PV (before the tax credits!). After tax credits, it was a landslide. It looked false at first glance, we frankly didn't believe it until we ran the numbers several times. And this is a bad building! Uninsulated, ripe for standard conservation tactics.

    It's making me start to revisit some embedded biases, which might be linked to morality, not economic validity.

  9. user-984364 | | #9

    My utility at least requires an audit
    Tiny step I suppose, but maybe a step in the right direction - my utlity (Xcel) requires an energy audit before subsidizing solar.

    They don't require any action after the audit... but they do require the audit!

    It'd be an interesting policy to say you must at least be below the state average on consumption before we'll pay for your solar.

    Incentives are large enough here that in some cases people are doing it for their own simple economic gain, efficiency and/or conservation and/or environment doesn't even come into it, I'm afraid.

  10. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Uninsulated CMU building in Brooklyn
    Your example of the uninsulated CMU building in Brooklyn is an eye-opener. Thanks for reminding us that you always have to sharpen your pencil and do some figuring before generalizing.

  11. greenophilic | | #11

    Reliability of energy generation vs. savings/conservation
    Certainly another benefit of installing PV rather than efficiency measures is that PV will deliver fairly predictable energy generation, whereas retrofit measures have a lot more uncertainty.

    More important, most people retrofit a building to save energy AND increase comfort or fix other issues. PV can compete with the former effort in terms of energy/cost, but has no effect on the latter, leaving a home with possible low net-energy use but horrible comfort and durability issues. Of course if you've already taken care of comfort, noise, durability, the PV is a direct competitor and often a winner.

  12. user-626934 | | #12

    Inverters, roof space, lifespan

    You're right - the steep decline in the installed cost of PV systems is starting to make things really interesting. Some additions I'd like to make to the conversation:

    1) Inverters - If you're figuring the average cost per kWh over 25 years, you'll probably want to include an inverter replacement somewhere in the middle....not much added cost, but it should be added in.

    2) Roof space - One of my Passive House projects under construction in Virginia recently installed a PV system on the south-facing rooftop along with a solar thermal system. The PV + solar systems will leave the owners a little short of net-site-zero, but they can add to it at a later date....having said that, installing PV over the remaining available roof space should just barely get them to net-zero....and this is for just about the most energy efficient house we could possibly design. How much roof space will an average U.S. house require to get to net-zero?

    3) Lifespan - PV systems = 25-?? years......lifespan of insulation = ???

  13. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Response to John Semmelhack
    I just replaced my 18-year-old Trace inverter this year. So they can last a long time.

  14. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #14

    A C(MU) Grows in Brooklyn
    Jesse - Interesting thoughts about the CMU building. I can definitely see where the retrofit costs could be excessive, and how PV is a logical alternative. That said, I would surely hope that the occupants are taking a very close look at their plug loads, equipment efficiency, and how they operate the house. Also, while in this particular case, PV may be a better solution than efficiency retrofits, we need to be careful not to let a single (and probably relatively rare) exception disprove the rule.

    John - you make a good point about the life of equipment. In addition, sometimes the panels need cleaning, and if they aren't easily accessible, it can be a difficult and expensive project.

  15. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    Response to Carl
    Concerning cleaning PV modules: I've never done it in 31 years. But of course, we get both rain and snow. Perhaps at a very dusty site without rainfall, one might need to get out the Windex. But for most people, it's a red herring.

  16. Mike Eliason | | #16

    i'm still not sure how much
    i'm still not sure how much of a winner solely adding PV is without addressing efficiency. for the same reason i don't see biofuels as replacing gasoline at an industrial scale. the resources needed for PV are finite - simply adding PV to every existing building isn't feasible. additionally, grid-tied PV isn't usually zero emissions, so by simply foregoing efficiency - it's still contributing to the CO2 problem.

    in most of the non-commercial PV projects i'm familiar with, not attending to conservation first would have required far more PV than would have fit on the roofs (if the roofs were even oriented in the right direction to being with)

  17. user-869687 | | #17

    Confidential to Mike
    If your keyboard has has malfunctioned (pesky Shift key no longer works) you could get a replacement at Goodwill, cheap. A real PITA to keep toggling Caps Lock whenever you want to capitalize a letter, I understand.

  18. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #18

    Cleaning PV

    I heard this from Peter Pfeiffer in Austin where they go very long periods (like right now) that are dusty and dry. Here in Georgia we often have long stretches during pollen season where everything is covered with a really thick layer of yellow dust which eventually runs in the streets when it finally rains. It may not be a severe problem, but it does apparently happen.

  19. AndrewInChelseaQC | | #19

    Solar in the winter
    Considering that we have to end the use of fossil fuels by 2050 if we are to 'adapt' to Global warming I am a little concerned with the idea of skipping the energy retrofit and just going with PV based on simple payback. For a lot of regions/jurisdictions energy demand is very significant in winter. Here in Quebec peak electricity demand is in winter. PV isn't much help then.

    PV certainly is an asset when managing peak summer loads from air conditioning because the sun is often shining at the very time when air conditioning is demanding the most electricity. But PV doesn't generate much energy when peak demand occurs in the winter. So skimping on the insulation and air sealing during a renovation isn't going to help us/society at the regional level and ultimately global level, as we'll have to find another energy supply source in the winter time. It may save the home/building owner money, but we still have a problem.

    Carl's reply (7 above), where he discussed the town in Alaska's forced energy conservation measures highlights the point. PV panels on the roofs in that Alaskan town weren't and aren't going to be much help when the sun doesn't shine.



  20. user-964538 | | #20

    Definition of Sustainability
    I don't know if a word such as sustainability means very much any longer. Once the 'marketing' people get their hands on a word, nothing good ever comes of it. In terms of sustainability, we need to expand the definition to encompass as much as possible. That means, we have to build human behaviours into our definition, and the fact that society isn't uniform. There are many levels, and sub-sets and odd things going on within society.

    Take an instance, where one's wife decides she needs a new expensive pair of designer shoes, and learns that she can stretch as far as buying them, if she really learns how to manipulate these reverse utility billing scale, by using less energy. The next thing you know, the husband is going without a dinner, he cannot turn on the television set or do anything else with electricity, without wondering, how it is going to affect his relationship with his wife, who wants a new pair of shoes.

    How does that fit into any definition of sustainability? Great, we save a few kilowatts. The household gets to save a few dollars, and Mrs. Bloggs gets a new pair of clogs.

    Lets bear in mind also, that the above problem may affect people of lower income much more severely than people of comfortable middle incomes. It may turn into a situation, where kids switch off light bulbs at night time rather than study their school books, just so that they can go to the retail mall at the weekend and buy a pair of $100 kicks. I would think that life is already hard enough at the margins of society, without our trying to invent new policies designed to improve the lives of those less able to consider their impact on the environment.

    The best we can hope for, is that the kid leaves the light bulb turned on, gets so interested in their school books, that they forget about the $100 pair of kicks (not likely, but one can only hope), and that he/she grows up to invent a brand new type of solar panel, or energy efficient home technology.

    It's almost demeaning to people in a way, to try to invent clever ways to fool them, into living a more green lifestyle, without their actually knowing it. It assumes that people are unable to understand why they should want to save the environment. So we should 'dumb it down' for them, and create a kind of instrument, whereby they feel it in their pockets if they don't behave in a certain way.

    Then we wonder why we have conspiracy theories. I can't wait to hear what conspiracy theories emerge, if we try to encourage people to save money, by using less electricity. I can guarantee one thing though. None of the conspiracy theories that do emerge, on foot of an attempt to manipulate peoples' behaviour is going to come even close to the initial intention. We will everything from aliens from Mars, to secret societies in the house of Congress, to someone else wears woman's underwear. Because that is how society responds when we try to dumb it down for 'their benefit'. They respond by behaving in precisely the way, you don't want them to.

    The best scene I can remember from movies of television which describes the above, is a scene from 'The West Wing', in which Martin Sheen's character is about to give his first speech in his campaign for his presidential re-election. They employed consultants to vet the speech in advance. The consultant was worried that the folk of New Hampshire would not understand a certain word in a speech. Sheen's character replied, that if they didn't understand the word, they can look it up in a dictionary. It is not our job to constantly appeal to the lowest common denominator.

  21. NOLARebuilder | | #21

    Jesse, 25 yr ROI is not great!
    Sorry Jesse, but a 25 yearr payback is crappy relative to things like switching to more energy efficient lighting and upgrading insulation, which have paybacks of less than 10 years. Also, your analysis assumes at least 5 hours of 100% exposure (for panels with a 70% efficiency) which is not very likely in many retrofit situations since you have to deal with the existing building orientation. Also, your analysis does not factor in maintenance and increased insurance costs. Years ago, I worked on demand side management (i.e., energy efficiency programs) for a large utility and solar always had the worst ROI relative to every other things we promoted. Now I work in real estate development and am constantly crunching numbers for green and energy efficient building options and solar still doesn't pencil out relative to other option. Right now I'm a bigger fan of "old school" design methods (like larger eaves to shade windows and higher ceilings in the South) that reduce the need for air conditioning and water consumption, and fortified construction (i.e., building wind resistant housing that is well above base flood elevations) that provide homeowners with 30-50% reduced insurance costs.
    One thing developers understand that architects and some contractors don't, is that everything you chose to put into a house comes at the expense of something else. For example, in coastal south, if I'm going to put an additional $15K into a house, I'm putting it into a raised foundation (flood insurance savings of ~$1000/year in places like New Orleans) and impact-resistant windows (insurance savings of about $500). Together those two will give me a 10 year payback with little or no home maintenance costs.

  22. user-964538 | | #22

    Good comment
    Nice to read your comment Tessa. A lot of good points made there.

  23. Jesse Thompson | | #23

    You're misrepresenting


    You're misrepresenting what I said, I never claimed PV has a 25 year payback.

    I was talking net present value figures calculated over a conservative 25 year lifespan of the equipment, an entirely different animal. When you pay $0.25 / kWH to a utility and can buy solar for $0.10 / kWH, what's the payback there? That's not payback, that's immediate income!

    Your points about retrofits are often valid, not every site is perfect for solar. As well, some parts of the country have very cheap and dirty utility electric prices, and it's still more expensive there.

    But! Everyone needs to stop using 2 year old PV costs when they are evaluating its viability. I'm going to keep repeating this, because we were caught out by the shift as well in our office. PV is a silicon manufacturing process, and to not take into account what happened to the price / performance of computer chips in our lifetime is blinkered.

    It may seem like science fiction to some, but if PV continues its current price / performance curve, we're not far off from a design situation where the most responsible cost design path is to stuff your roof full of as much PV as will fit, and then optimize your insulation package to get to site carbon neutrality or carbon negative, the reverse of today's conventional wisdom.

    Curves have a future!

  24. zt88TUzzpw | | #24

    Reduce and then Offset
    You make a great point when greening our buildings should first be to reduce the energy needed for the structure and its occupants. Only after making this concerted effort should you then determine how to then offset your energy needs through renewable, possibly on-site, sources.

    It may be difficult to shift the program focus away from purchasing to conservation methods as the act of purchasing puts more money back into the pot to then be utilized for programs. But your point is a good one, and a system is certain to come.

  25. hCMByaNRpd | | #25

    carbon tax
    Isn't a carbon tax the incentive that favors no industry? It leaves room for all methods: conserve, retrofit, super-insulate, pv, etc. The government, and likely the rest of us too, have a mixed track record for "picking the winners". A carbon tax - which just a few years ago did not seem totally impossible to imagine getting implemented - cuts to the chase and levels the playing field.

  26. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #26

    Curves have a future, and a (recent) past too.
    The precipitous drop in PV panel pricing since 2008 is a big departure from the 25 year trend, due in no small part to strong Chinese subsidy of the capital & feedstock materials for setting up polysilicon PV production in China, as well as their currency pricing policy. Whether PV pricing will/can continue do drop further the short term (or even rebound) depends a lot on government policies worldwide. The drop in pricing has been SO quick that many haven't made the mental & financial adjustment to the "new normal". For many installations raw panel pricing is no longer the dominant cost factor, eclipsed by rest-of-system + installation costs.

    But clearly by 2020, and maybe even by 2015, PV will likely have achieved grid-parity with fossil plants, without PV subisidy, even at the wholesale price per kwh levels. (Or even sooner where carbon emissions are taxed.)

    And still, despite examples of where it's not the case, there is still a HUGE amount of low-hanging insulation & air sealing retrofit fruit out there that beats even subsided PV as an investment. The high cost of retrofitting effective insulation for CMU construction is something of a special case. There are still thousands of square miles of leaky, poorly insulated stick built wall out there.

  27. dankolbert | | #27

    In case your sense of irony hasn't been sharpened recently

  28. user-869687 | | #28

    Polluting solar panel factory
    Any high-tech solution to environmental problems (e.g. "green energy") will have unintended consequences, although in this case the solar panel entrepreneurs were probably negligent running the factory. I'd suggest a general skepticism toward any "green technology"; it's usually an oxymoron. At best, less harmful than some alternative.

  29. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #29

    Response to Dan Kolbert
    One more reminder of the hidden costs of cheap products from China. Just as with the price of oil, the external costs to the environment haven't been factored into the price.

  30. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #30

    ...or the external costs of most things energy.
    The environment price of PV production in China is very real, but does it come even close to the externalities of oil production in the Niger delta, or mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia? Are those externalities reflected in the price of oil or electricity in the US?

    Few aspects of energy production from any source have ever been reflected in the purchase price. And while China has not-so-quietly been taking over 70% of the production of panelized PV causing a quantum-drop in system price over 2-3 years, it probably doesn't drastically affect the timing of when the PV cost-curve crosses fossil-grid parity. Whether produced in Houston or Haining , dirty or dirtier, the lifecycle externalites of PV per kwh delivered will likely pale in comparison to fossil-thermal power plants or the oil biz.

    The lower cost of Chinese PV has fairly little to do with lax enforcement of their pollution regulations, and nearly EVERYTHING to do with no or low-cost state subsidized capital, and the manner in which the exchange rate of the renmimbi against the dollar/euro/yen is controlled. The Chinese state seems to want to own this industry going forward, even if it has to transgress rules of fairness as understood in free-market economies.

  31. user882465 | | #31

    Tiered Elec Rate Structure Encourages Efficiency & Conservation
    There are lots of things we do wrong in California, but there are some things we do right. Here's an explanation of how residential electricity is currently priced in tiers. The more electricity you use in a billing period, the more each successive increment costs.
    Here's what I pay in San Francisco per kiloWatt hour during summer months:
    Baseline: 0-225 kWh / $0.12 per kWh
    Tier 2: 226-293 kWh / $0.14 per kWh
    Tier 3: 294-450 kWh / $0.30 per kWh
    Tier 4: 451-675 kWh / $0.34 per kWh
    Tier 5: 676+ kWh / $0.34 per kWh

    As you can see, right now Tier 4 and 5 have the same cost per kWh. Until recently, the cost in Tier 3 was lower and the cost in Tier 5 was higher. So Tier 5 could be raised again. This rate structure encourages energy efficiency plus it means that if you are a big energy user, installing a photovoltaic system to offset your use in Tiers 3-5 has a much quicker payback time than in States without tiered rates.

  32. user882465 | | #32

    Uninsulated CMU Building in Brooklyn
    I agree that solar electric can be a better option than some energy efficiency measures in existing buildings. But you DO need to think about more than payback. I replaced the single pane aluminum windows in my house. Given the relatively mild climate in San Francisco, this made no sense whatsoever in terms of financial payback. But it made a big difference by making it much more comfortable to sit near a window when it's 45-50 degrees outside as is common in winter. Plus it had acoustic benefits. I could have installed a small PV system and added electric heat. But I would be less comfortable than I am with the window replacement. My point is that there are some baseline efficiency measures that will make a building more comfortable than simply adding heat. If I had an uninsulated CMU building in Brooklyn I would be tempted to add interior insulation simply to raise the temperature of the interior surfaces.

  33. albertrooks | | #33

    Thank you Bill Burke
    It's an ongoing argument, but I still like to maintain that simply using a cost justification is selling ourselves short. I know that we need a measuring stick. I know that clients have budgets and that we all have limited resources, but I strongly disagree that insulation stops when it's move expensive than PV. This goes back to the whole (healthy) argument between Martin Halladay and a few folks at the past March 2011 Passive House Northwest conference. (yes... Despite the all the fuss, we still alive and well!)

    Passive strategies of site and envelope should always be maximized before the active systems are put into play. And... I'll back it up with the observation that most of the insulation be it cellulose, fiberglass and the foams are made on this continent.

    I'd like to continue urging that we drop the cost neutral comparison and take a look at a longer payoff terms for passive systems. Including their best asset: stable cost amortization because they are already paid for.

  34. albertrooks | | #34

    And another thing!
    Great discussion Carl. Thanks for bringing it up! It's really useful to check our assumptions regularly.

  35. tfarwell | | #35

    I respectfully disagree
    Eco-Bling is awesome. The guys selling the shiny stuff to well-off people make a killing in profit margin - providing the motivation for investors and development. People with money typically invest in cool looking, profitable merchandise. Nothing will drive innovation faster, eventually helping the common user. Once you make all this available to a wider range of people, some will start asking the basic questions, that you are spot-on asking.

    My opinion: Government programs won't drive change - the market will

  36. jwing | | #36

    LEED encourages dingle
    Slightly off topic: I work in large building design and construction. The Green Standard here is LEED. The easiest way to rack up LEED energy efficiency points is to design energy-hogging shells that are used as the energy baseline, then attaching lots of gadgets to improve the 'energy efficiency.' This is expensive and misguided.

    By far, the most life-cycle-cost-effective strategy for building design is to begin with the intention to reduce the a building's energy requirements, regardless of the energy source. Through thoughtful design, energy-use reduction can be achieved with no additional construction cost. Unfortunately, LEED does not award credits for this.

    If buildings are designed to require minimal energy, they are very comfortable and the cost required to supply significant portions of energy via PV or other green alternatives becomes affordable. At that point, the coolness factor is a very good thing, because it is the prime motivator for many people.

  37. dbourbon | | #37

    Steve Mouzon in The Original Green refers to this as "gizmo green." Integrated design must always come first.

  38. rKvqvF6XKK | | #38

    I must agree with the
    I must agree with the sentiments on eco-bling. However, that’s what subsidies do: they distort the market. Subsidies, particularly for PV, have distorted the market to such an extent that wealthy homeowners (for generally they are the ones that can afford it, while the lower and middle class pay for them through taxes) are filling their roofs with PV and then thinking efficiencies don’t matter inside the home. As an example, solar thermal (water heating) still provides better return on investment than solar electricity, even considering subsidies. However, the return on investment for the solar installers is better if they sell and fill a roof with PV and power everything, including an electric water heater, with solar electricity. The subsidies are encouraging non-green (or less green) results.
    In terms of costs: PV comes in at about 14c/kWh. Wholesale costs of coal powered electricity are roughly 2c/kWh and for nuclear, roughly 1.5c/kWh. In addition to subsidies, many locales have artificially raised electricity prices to encourage “green” behavior. In our region, the utility is actually paying business operators in excess of 20c/kWh for PV electricity, and then selling it for 14c/kWh. Where’s the business sense in this? The CO2 argument doesn’t hold water. I’m skeptical of man-made global warming, but that’s another subject. We’re spending millions on reducing CO2 footprints with PV (via subsidies) by just a few percent. We could reduce our CO2 footprints by about 25% in many locations by upgrading coal-fired power plants to take advantage of modern technologies.
    In addition, we still need to have a backup power supply. Like a car, providing power at constant, or predictable amounts encourages the most efficient use of the fuel. Not being able to predict when the wind will stop blowing or clouds cover the sun, means that traditionally fueled power stations are running less efficiently, like a car driving on city streets instead of the highway.
    Ultimately, I support the push for more efficient, more effective and more considerate use of our resources, but I absolutely deplore the subsidies.
    Despite every other conceived community administration throughout history, only one economic system has proved ultimately to be the survivor and importantly…economically sustainable…and that is the free market system. I’m looking forward to the withdrawal of the subsidies for PV, other green products…and for coal fired electricity. Let the market determine the sustainability of the products. Governments do not have a good track record when it comes to market manipulation.
    Good points above by Edward however, I would add in No. 1 spot: Build to market needs and wants. No point in building a home, sustainable or otherwise, that no one wants.

  39. ejshannon3 | | #39

    5 principles
    Nice article! How I agree. As a residential architect and instructor at a community college, I have five principles about sustainability that I share with my students.

    I. Build it well
    Well-built buildings will sustain themselves by requiring less maintenance. They will last longer and likely be transformed into something else.

    II. Built to inspire
    Buildings that are pleasing to the eye and pleasant to dwell in will likely be cherished and taken care of.

    III. Build to transform
    The longevity of a building depends on its ability to expand or be transformed into something else. Choose systems that foster, not hinder this.

    IV. Build it small
    Good stewardship is about creating buildings that do not waste space and resources.

    V. Build in an urban context.
    High performance buildings that demand lengthy automobile usage are counterproductive.

    Let's face it, a cheap, ugly, monster house, built in the middle of nowhere, that is "high performing" is of little benefit to anyone!

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