Pablo, from "The Black Cat's Night," woodcut, 20011
Even though I had to put my beloved fourteen year-old cat to sleep today, a sickly bag of bones purring to his last breath, and even though the day began with dark skies and thunderstorms (adding to what has already been one of the rainiest seasons ever in Cleveland), and even though my neighborhood is lately under siege from developers targeting beautiful old buildings for demolition, I remain an optimistic person.
You’ll have to excuse me, though, if I am not encouraged by the passive “Smart Home” built in conjunction with the Clevleand Museum of Natural History’s Climate Change exhibit. The house opened this week. The exhibit opens July 23.
A “passive” home is one that stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer without the use of a furnace or air conditioner. This is accomplished with lots of insulation, and devices known as “heat exchangers.”
The Smart Home was built to add optimism to a fairly bleak picture painted by the CMNH exhibit on global warming. And we absolutely need to confront that situation with optimism. Otherwise, we might just give up.
But let’s not misplace our optimism, or waste the motivation it provides on quixotic, fruitless adventures.
Informative as the “passive house” may be, new construction of half-million dollar “smart” homes is not the way out of our climate crisis.
First, it’s the tiniest percentage of the population that has the money for such things. There’s no reason to cite income statistics or median home sale prices here. Anyone reading this already knows the vast, vast majority of Clevelanders, Ohioans, or citizens of the world could never afford a half-million dollar house, no matter how energy efficient it may be.
Second, how friendly to the climate is energy efficient, new construction, really? It takes an enormous amount of energy—in the production and transportation of materials, the site preparation, and the construction itself—to build a new house. All that has to be figured into the house’s impact on the environment. And it would take years—decades, even, to regain that lost ground.
Besides, we’ve already got far too many houses.
Existing construction –since all that energy has already been spent—has a much greener head start.
Second, if lots of people had the money for such projects, they would have to find locations to build them. New construction typically happens in far-flung suburbs, like Medina, where any energy gains made by such a house have to be weighed against the consumption that goes with living miles away from the grocery store or friends, and many more miles from an employment center.
If we are talking about a sprinkling of projects that will make a few individuals feel good (and benefit them with low utility bills that enable them to afford “more house”) but will never have much impact on climate change, Cleveland and similar cities have plenty of available land. But to build new homes in numbers that would impact energy consumption on a scale that matters globally, would require clearing of urban land to make room for these half million dollar “passive homes.” That’s another enormous cost, both in energy expense and in dollars. And it makes any positive impact from such newly constructed “smart homes” that much more unlikely.
What we see here is a construction industry –one that has run rampant over our environmental concerns for half a century—doing a little bit of sexy PR for itself.
The museum’s pretty, Victorian-style house looks nice and showcases a lot of impressive technology, but we are deluded if we believe this is anything like an answer to our problems.
Ray(s) of the Sun: A new solar array in Lakewood
I’m much more encouraged by my friend Ray Query, who lives up the street. Ray is a champion recycler, and committed to bicycling as a primary mode of transportation, but the part of his life that commands attention at the moment is his installation of a solar, photo voltaic array on the south side of his Lakewood house.
Ray lives in an old side-by-side duplex, in an old, densely built neighborhood—a place where you can walk or bike to just about anything you need, including a job. The house has been there for about 100 years, so it didn’t require the vast energy expense of trucks coming and going with building materials, and so on. That gives its Green quotient a big jump on new construction.
But by adding a 4-Killowatt solar array, Ray has gone one step further. With an up front cost of $24,000 before tax credits, it’s not cheap. But you could do that twenty times for the cost of a half-million dollar, “smart home.”
Photovoltaic technology is plenty familiar, but still unusual enough that it took 5 months after signing his contract with the installer Astrum Solar, before the city and power company all gave their approval.
It’s a little consolation that it’s been raining for most of the last several months. The flip of the switch that will actually connect his PV array to his house and the grid will happen this week just in time for the sunniest days.
Query expects that the system will produce about double the amount of electricity his household needs. His is already a frugal family, using energy efficient appliances, unplugging them when they’re not in use, not running an air conditioner, and using a high efficiency light bulbs.
Whatever is extra, he’ll sell back to the grid. Between the lowered energy costs, the possibility of selling extra electricity to the power company, and the eventual possibility of selling clean energy credits, he expects the system will pay for itself in about 8 years.
Eight years is not very long. My cat lived a lot longer than that.
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