Resources at Risk: Material World

More households, larger houses, "vampire" appliances, failed deregulation, fragile resources. These pressures and more are causing a severe energy crunch. Builders must be part of the solution.

Builder John Wesley Miller isn't waiting for an energy crisis to hit sunny Arizona. "What we're literally doing here," he says of his Tucson infill community Armory Park del Sol, "is building a small power plant one house at a time." Miller is taking part in a national experiment to test zero energy houses, solar-powered homes that produce more energy than they need (see "Power Brokers" below).

Given the recent energy woes of neighboring California, Miller's approach isn't all that extreme. In 2001, la-la land turned into lights-out land as California became the poster child against utility deregulation.

California Scheming

For California consumers, utility bills in 2001 suddenly rivaled rent and mortgage payments as the primary household expense. Even when power was on, consumers lived in the dark to reduce energy costs. And this was in a state in which Title 24 energy legislation had made new homes built in the past decade some of the most energy-efficient in the nation, a state that generated some of its electric power from wind-powered (Palm Springs), solar (SMUDD near Sacramento, Calif.), and geothermal (Calpine near Geysers, Calif.) generation facilities.

The recent West Coast energy crisis was a wake-up call made more alarming by indictments alleging energy-company collusion. In response, California wants back money it says it was overcharged for energy. Angered investors are suing executives, including utility executives of failed firms, for their personal assets. Whether Enron and its friends did or did not deliberately turn off or lower the amount of electricity generated by its plants feeding California, energy problems still prevail. The finger-pointing should not distract from some real problems.

California experienced regular brownouts and scheduled rolling blackouts to manage its reduced power allocations in 2001. Neighboring states, fearing their own power woes, threatened to stop selling California needed electrical energy. The severe drought, which lowered river levels, thus reducing hydroelectric power-plant output, made matters worse.

Some Arizona consumers received hypothetical electric bills from Tucson Electric Power showing them what they would be paying if they lived in California vs. their real electric bills, which were about one-third of the heart-palpitating Golden State version. Arizonians were supposed to feel relieved but instead were confused--was next year's bill going to be California high?--and deluged their utility company with questioning phone calls. It wasn't a pretty picture.

Photos: Shane Rebenschied

In response to the uncertainty, some major builders, such as Shea Homes and Pardee Homes, have begun including solar-power systems in their houses, especially in California, where favorable tax laws help make solar technology affordable. The 1-kilowatt systems (both proprietary builder setups and generic systems) retail to consumers without subsidies or credits at about $8,000. The systems are not enough to power a house but will keep at least the refrigerator, a few lights, and a computer operative as long as the sun is shining (no-battery backup stores extra power).

The Pot Boils

Last year, many states pointed to California as a reason to slow or halt their own utility deregulation programs. According to the U.S. Energy Department, 17 states restructured their electric utilities, six delayed implementation of deregulation plans, and 26 decided against pursuing deregulation altogether.

This isn't the first time energy problems have caused California and its neighbors headaches. Before Enron, there was "the tree." In August 1996, wires sagged on a tree in Oregon and shorted out. The cascading, domino- effect as adjacent systems became overloaded led to power outages in five states, affecting 15 million customers.

Energy Gluttons

Adding to the current shortage of power are ever more utility-consuming households and more electrical devices in ever larger homes.

Andy Shapiro of Energy Balance, a consulting firm in Montpelier, Vt., has compared annual energy use for small vs. large homes. He documented that well-insulated big homes (3,000 square feet) in Boston and St. Louis use significantly more energy per square foot than well-insulated homes half the size. In fact, in many cases, those big homes use more energy per square foot than poorly insulated small homes. His results thus beg the question, What size should a home be, perhaps based on number of occupants, to be considered energy-efficient?

Home electrical devices are also to blame. Many use as much or more power when they're turned off as when they're on. Alan Meier of Berkeley, Calif.-based Home Energy magazine has extensively researched this hidden power use, which some dub "the vampire effect."

VCRs, for example, consume 54 percent of their total energy when off. The vampire list includes microwaves, DVD players, and anything with a remote control. Even halogen lamps waste electricity because they draw and store power in their bases when off.

Total vampire energy leakage adds up to 500 million watts every day nationwide. In response, President Bush has issued Executive Order 13211, which states that by 2005, half of all new appliances must use 1 watt or less in the "off" position; by 2010, all new appliances must comply.

Meanwhile, utility companies are finding it difficult to get permission to build new generating facilities, as consumers don't want new electrical facilities near their homes, environmentalists have concerns about air pollution, and numerous regulatory hurdles abound in the planning and approval processes.

If that weren't enough, power generation relies on fragile or controversial natural resources such as water, coal, oil, and natural gas and only more recently (and to a lesser degree) on sun and wind and maybe fuel cells. The nature of these resources makes builders' dependence on them tenuous, as drought reduces hydropower, coal-fired facilities cause pollution, and oil and natural gas suffer shortages and price fluctuations.

Solar, wind-driven, and fuel cell technologies have troubles as well. Improper installation on homes and even dust on collectors can reduce the output and efficiency of solar panels, for example, and some consumers consider windmills an eyesore. As for fuel cells, only last September did one large enough to power a house get plugged into an electrical grid near Houston (see "Fuel Cells--When?" below).

Nonetheless, the renewable-energy production market is forging ahead. The West is looking more to the sun and wind for its power needs and is passing laws that open doors for green, renewable power production. Prescott, Ariz., announced plans last October to host a solar generating facility for Arizona Public Service (APS). APS claims the 50-acre site will be one of the world's largest solar-power plants, generating enough electricity to power more than 3,000 homes.

In September 2002, California governor Gray Davis signed legislation requiring the state's electric utilities to increase their use of renewable energy sources to 20 percent, nearly twice the previous level. In November 2001, San Francisco voters approved Proposition H, which will use bond financing to install 50 megawatts' worth of solar panels on San Francisco rooftops.

Hard Truths

What's the bottom line, energy-wise, for builders? That it's easier to save a BTU or watt than it is to make one. True energy conservation begins at home--a well-insulated, moderately sized home.

Blow Hard

When wind blows, windmills turn for low-cost renewable energy. Why would anyone object?

Wind generation works in Palm Springs, Calif., and the rows of windmills that have been spinning on mountain ridges there for more than a decade are somewhat of a tourist attraction. The area has heeded the U.S. Department of Energy's contention that wind power can supply at least 20 percent of the country's electrical demand at an economical price.

Yet acceptance is not so easy elsewhere. Take the proposed $55-million Crescent Ridge wind-energy project southwest of Tiskilwa, Ill. A few protesters may stop a project that would generate enough power for 20,000 homes. Easily approved by the Bureau County planning board with ground-breaking to have begun last October, the project has endured protests over its appearance and other issues.

Each of the 34 wind turbines in the proposed project would generate 1.5 megawatts and not make much more noise than falling leaves (at least that's how proponents describe the turbines' whooshing sound). Apparently, there are groups of anti-wind-farm crusaders that help small groups protest wind projects. The 381-foot-high wind turbines do make some noise, in the range of 45 decibels (comparable to quiet-conversation levels).

Other issues include turbine blades killing birds and stray voltage, a low-level electrical current that leaks from some utility distribution systems. On the plus side, once installed, the turbines produce no greenhouse gases or air pollution. The 13 owners who would lease their land to Crescent Ridge for the turbines would collect at least $5,000 a year for each one.

This is the first landscaped green roof to be built in Pima County, Ariz., but it probably will not be the last.

Photos: Courtesy Bil Taylor Design Build

This is the first landscaped green roof to be built in Pima County, Ariz., but it probably will not be the last.

Flower Power

Tucson architect/builder Bil Taylor of Bil Taylor Design Build is designing and building an energy-conserving home with a green roof. Not a green roof in the literal sense, but rather one of the garden variety. Chris Everist of Taylor's office designed the rooftop garden and even found grant money to help pay for it.

Green roofs help insulate the structures they top, mitigate the urban "heat-island" effect brought on by overzealous paving, and decrease soil-eroding runoff.

Power Brokers

Zero energy houses may have energy to spare--and sell.

When does a household produce rather than just consume energy? When it's a zero energy house (ZEH).

ZEHs are active-solar homes that use "net metering" to measure and "sell" the excess energy they produce. That means they record no, or zero, metered energy use and have the potential to sell back to the utility the energy they generate beyond that level.

The benefit for the participating utility company is that it can serve more customers without building more generation stations, especially useful in rapidly growing parts of the country. Consumers, by the way, still get a bill--energy generation is only part of the typical electric bill.

This past Nov. 4, the U.S. Department of Energy (through its National Renewable Energy Laboratory), Tucson (Arizona) Electric Power, Tucson-based Global Solar, and the NAHB Research Center celebrated one of the first ZEHs. The home, located in Tucson, in John Wesley Miller Cos.' sustainable infill community Armory Park del Sol, is one of three national prototypes. Armory Park has already developed a reputation for sustainability and energy efficiency.

The Tucson ZEHs are built to use less than $1 a day of electricity for heating and cooling, guaranteed, with the number of solar panels used based on the house's size and use. The NAHB Research Center, in Upper Marlboro, Md., worked with Miller and the other coalition partners to make the homes even more comfortable and energy-conserving and will monitor the homes' performance.

This ZEH incorporates heavy thermal mass walls that store heat (concrete masonry units that are insulated on the outside), energy-saving appliances, heat pumps, high-performance windows, solar water-heating systems, and photovoltaic technology. (Photovoltaic systems are a "no-brainer" in Tucson, which enjoys 350 sunny days a year, but the Department of Energy says most parts of the country are suitable for passive- and active-solar technology as well.)

Of the ZEH, former NAHB Research Center acting president Terre Belt says, "In addition to being energy-efficient, the home is designed to be affordable and aesthetically pleasing." An appealing concept for builders and consumers alike.

Fuel Cells--When?

Fuel cells have been the most-talked-about late starter in terms of future power. But there is hope for progress.

Fuel cells have been compared to batteries that don't run down and heralded as an environmentally friendly power source. Natural gas, propane, and perhaps biogasses, such as methane, can economically power them. Prototypes have been on display for years at home building shows, but none has been available for installation in homes (see www.fuelcelltoday.com and www.toolbase.org/secondaryT.asp?CategoryID=967 for a look at fuel cells' evolution).

Something noteworthy on the fuel cell horizon is finally happening in Pennsylvania and Texas. In Pennsylvania, Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp. opened a fuel cell production plant in Munhall. The firm's plans are to have fuel cells for sale at the end of 2003. In Woodlands, Texas, outside of Houston, a fuel cell system has been successfully connected to the local utility power grid.

Last September, the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) announced that it had connected a 5-kilowatt Plug Power--brand fuel cell to the local utility grid. (Five kilowatts is the amount needed to power the typical U.S. home, according to HARC estimates.) HARC is a consortium comprising Southern Co., Texaco Energy Systems (a unit of ChevronTexaco Technology Ventures), and Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development. If successful, such fuel cells may finally become a readily available resource choice for powering homes.

Photos: Courtesy Houston Advanced Research Center

Connected: HARC's George King and Dan Bullock, with Entergy Texas' Paul Senkel, observe the successful connection of a residential-size Plug Power fuel cell system to the electric grid outside of Houston. Entergy is an integrated energy company that delivers energy to about 2.6 million customers in parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Its corporate headquarters is in New Orleans. Researchers will use the site to determine whether fuel cells can one day help homes safely generate their own power.