I spend a lot of time writing about innovations in the building industry — the cool stuff that’s coming out all the time. But I also like to think about what’s needed: stuff that’s not (yet) on the market or performance levels not yet available. This week I’ll describe a few such products, systems, and enhancements.
Rigid insulation with no flame retardants and insignificant global warming potential
Readers of this blog may be aware that I’ve been highly critical of the brominated and chlorinated flame retardant chemicals added to nearly all foam-plastic rigid insulation today as well as the high-global-warming-potential blowing agents used in extruded polystyrene. I would love to see affordable alternatives. They could be new formulations of polystyrene or polyisocyanurate that doesn’t require flame retardants or inorganic materials that are inherently noncombustible. I’m intrigued by advanced ceramics and could imagine a foamed ceramic insulation being developed that meets these criteria.
A really good exterior insulation system for existing houses
We need to dramatically improve the energy performance of existing houses, and one important strategy for doing that is to carry out “deep energy retrofits” by adding a thick layer of rigid insulation on the exterior and installing window surrounds to extend the window openings out to the new outer plane. The easier and cheaper we can make this addition the better, as long as we adequately provide for air leakage control, drying potential, and other aspects of building science. This calls for a really good system — perhaps some or all of it prefabricated.
Even better air-source heat pumps for cold climates
I’ve written frequently about the tremendous innovation we’ve seen in the world of air-source heat pumps, particularly the minisplit systems from such companies as Mitsubishi, Daikin, and Fujitsu. The Mitsubishi unit we recently installed kept our new house toasty with the temperature dipping to –5°F last week, and it should be fine down to –13°F. But I’d like to see operability down to –20. I’d also like to see affordable air-to-water heat pumps that can deliver high enough temperatures to be effective for baseboard hot water (hydronic) heating.
Affordable, durable LED lighting at 100 lumens per watt and a CRI of 90
There have been dramatic improvements in LED (light-emitting diode) lighting in the past few years, but we need more improvement if the market share of LEDs is to surpass that of incandescent and compact fluorescent lighting. I’d like to see LED lights delivering 100 lumens of light per watt of electricity consumption while producing light quality comparable to that of incandescent light bulbs (color rendering index or CRI of 90 or higher), with heat management technology good enough that manufacturers can provide a five-year warranty — and all this at an unsubsidized retail price of $5 or less. I think all that will be doable soon.
Affordable options for delivering emergency power from solar-electric systems
2013 saw the introduction of the first inverter for grid-connected solar-electric (PV) systems that allows electricity to be delivered during the daytime when the grid is down (the vast majority of grid-connected PV systems can’t do this). We installed one of these at our new place. But when a battery system is added to a grid-connected PV system so that electricity can be delivered to critical-load circuits, the cost usually goes up by $10,000 or more. I’d like to see the brightest engineers put their efforts into bringing the cost of this down to what would be spent for a good-quality, whole-house generator (about $5,000). Today’s batteries are expensive, so this goal will be a challenge, but I think there would be strong demand for such a system.
Technology to deter birds and bats from wind turbines
I’m a huge fan of wind power, but I remain troubled by news of bird and bat fatalities. It should be possible to develop systems that somehow warn off birds and bats. Perhaps high-frequency sound could be generated — too high-pitched for our ears — but noisy to birds and bats who get close. High-frequency noise tends to attenuate quickly, so perhaps such acoustic systems wouldn’t affect nearby residents.
100% growth in plug-in electric vehicles
I believe that plug-in electric and hybrid gas-electric vehicles are among the most important innovations the automotive industry ever. They offer the potential not only for renewable energy sources to power our vehicles, but also the potential to dramatically change our power grid — with those battery systems stabilizing the grid and helping utility companies better manage supply and demand. Toward this end, I’m hoping to see 100% growth in plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicle sales in 2014. That sounds like a lot, but doubling a small number is not unreasonable.
I won’t get all of these wishes in 2014, but perhaps we’ll make significant progress on some of them. We’ll all be the better for it.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.