Net Zero v. Nukes
November 3, 2005 - 4:31pm ET
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In the news today, I found this overlooked article announcing that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District have teamed up to design, test and produce a new generation of American homes that, on balance, require no electricity from the grid. By making homes 70 percent more efficient and adding on-site generation of solar power, the home becomes a 'net zero' consumer of energy. The implications of a net-zero revolution on energy security and economic prosperity are enormous.
First, it is important to understand just what this new initiative threatens. In the Bush vision of our energy future, America will continue to rely on petroleum for transportation fuel until a new generation of nuclear power plants can produce enough hydrogen to supply our cars and trucks. Similarly, in the Bush vision, Americans will continue to rely on electricity provided by coal and natural-gas fired generators. The common denominator appears to be finding a way to ensure that there is no disruption to the energy dependence of individual American families on oil companies and centralized electricity producers.
Achieving the Bush energy vision requires that the federal government take a number of steps. First, it must ensure access to existing and new supplies of the old-school fossil fuels. So, we see the rampant drilling in the West, mountaintop removal coal mining in the Appalachians, the opening of ANWR and the promotion of "democracy" in the Middle East.
But it also requires that we test and then produce a new generation of nuclear reactors. I've written about these reactors in earlier articles. But the latest wrinkle is that the Bush administration has worked out an agreement with the Indian government to share civilian nuclear technology. That agreement, in effect, allows India to be America's lab rat on which we will test the unproven next generation of nuclear technology. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry will go through the arduous process of buying politicians' votes to ensure that the government underwrites the loans, and then the even longer process of siting the new radiation risks close to poor communities who cannot fight back. At a time when everyone is worried about nuclear proliferation and homeland security, a major distribution of fissile material around the world is asking for a string of disasters.
Net-zero homes could just blow that dark vision out of the water and free the American consumer from dependence on two increasingly greedy corporate oligarchies.
Instead of building a limited number of multi-billion dollar reactors, we could simply mandate that all new construction and major redevelopment be net zero. These new designs and technologies, combined with smart growth or new urbanist metropolitan planning, would decisively delink GDP from energy use. In other words, energy consumption can drop while prosperity increases. America could rebuild itself sustainably while reducing its energy consumption. That, in turn, means greater security and a new source of economic growth.
And it's not that far off. ING, that Netherlands-based bank with the orange ball logo, designed its new headquarters so that it uses only one tenth of the traditional amount of energy. What is really dramatic is that the resulting space is so well-designed that employee absenteeism has dropped by 15 percent, increasing productivity so much that the energy bill is more than paid for. The U.S. Green Building Council already has more than 20,000 U.S. professionals certified in its low-energy building techniques, called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
But it's this fascinating concept by Honda that should have the oil oligarchs running scared. Not only could America's homes be energy self-sufficient, but their homes can power their cars. Honda has revealed its design for a home power station that can power not only that remaining 30 percent of NREL's new generation of homes, but also the family car. Gone will be the stories of oil refiners gouging the American consumer when some kind of shock hits the energy markets. Cars will be fueled at home. First, by natural gas and later, by solar power.
Instead of keeping America chained to the near monopolies of the electricity providers, instead of keeping America dependent on the twisted economic logic of oil companies, instead of keeping American troops in oil-producing regions, instead of running headlong into strategic conflict with China—let's just build and sell better houses, offices and communities.
It's a start.
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Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future