Net ZeroEnergy Monster Homes

In Aspen, the most iconic symbol of consumption is the trophy home—the city has 150 monster mansions with floor areas greater that 10,000 square feet. In the summer of2008, the Denver Post reported on Aspen's vacation homes as energy hogs. Citing "the whirring motors of cigar humidors and wine cellars, and the flicking on and off of 24/7 floodlights," the report summarized a study by the Sopris Foundation, an Aspen nonprofit, which found that, "with their heated driveways, outdoor hot tubs and 24-hour surveillance systems, Aspen's vacation homes each use more electricity than a block of average American homes. . . . As a result, the luxurious second homes generate most of the town's residential greenhouse gases, even though many of them are occupied only a few weeks each year."6 They emit more carbon than Aspen's fully occupied homes, according to the study. The Post concluded that, "while disproportionate energy use in second homes exists in every mountain-resort community, it is most pronounced in Aspen, where conspicuous consumption is a status symbol."

Anson Fogel of In Power Systems in Carbondale, not far from Aspen, has built a business around cutting energy use in trophy homes. He's an entrepreneur who "can't help but start businesses." A tech-head with red hair, a twinkle in his eyes, and a booming bass voice that seems like it might be coming from somewhere else in the room, Anson is a slight man with the build of an endurance athlete—which he is. He's a backcountry skiing fanatic. He would be just the right guy for the property management firm that called me to ask about greening its business.

Anson has a formula for cutting energy use in trophy homes. For new homes, he says, you do absolutely everything you can to build envelope efficiency (good insulation in walls and roof, good windows, and airtightness). Then you heat and cool the building by using a "geoexchange" system: tapping the relative warmth of the ground in winter and its relative coolness in summer. These systems are also called ground source heat pumps. You make sure lighting, appliances, and controls are state-of-the-art. You use solar thermal to get the high-temperature water you need, and then you add as much solar electric as you need to make up the difference. The result: a net-zero-energy home. Anson himself lives in one.

Of course, though Anson made his own home a net-zero-energy one, convincing others to do this is a different story. Early on in the design phase of one project (the perfect time to start), he met with the architect (from an elite firm of course), the mechanical engineer, the landscape architect, and the owner of a planned twenty-thousand-square-foot second home in Aspen.

Anson talked about the continuum of opportunity— would the owner like to address 5 percent of the structure's energy use? Or 10 percent? Or 100 percent?

The owner said, unequivocally, "I just want to do this 100 percent. It's the right thing to do. I want to go for it."

The first step in the process is figuring out how much energy a building will use, because that determines how much expensive solar energy you need to install after you've mitigated everything as far as possible. So Anson called the engineer. "Have you done any energy modeling on this using Energy 10 software?"

"What's Energy 10? No, modeling is not in the budget. We don't even know how to model it."

So Anson went to the architect to find money to get the model done. The architect talked to the owner, and they said: "This is all too complicated. Can't we just have the payback info on the systems? We already paid the engineer $25,000 so far; we don't have the money in the budget. Can you do a back-of-the-napkin analysis for us?"

Against his better judgment, and at a cost of about $1,000 (pro bono), Anson did the analysis and showed that simply using the best boilers and state-of-the-art controls, the building would have a thirty-year energy cost of $10 million, which presumed increases in energy costs.

To address this kind of energy use, Anson offered three options. The state-of-the-art systems approach, with good building envelope, boilers, and controls, would be good. It would be even better, he said, to install a geoexchange system, which would only add about $300,000 to the cost of the project (out of a total cost of, conservatively, $10 million). This would cut energy use in half. The best approach would be then to install 175 kilowatts of solar on the site to mitigate the remaining energy use.

The engineer said: "Geoexchange won't work."

The owner, no longer excited about the zero energy thing, said: "Okay, we'll delete the pool."

The design team said: "There's no room for all those solar panels, and besides, nobody wants to see them."

So Anson met with the landscape architects to see where they could put the solar panels by getting creative—using not just the roof but the yard, features in the yard, birdbaths, the whole gamut. They found enough area to locate seventy-five kilowatts—not nearly what they needed, but a good effort nonetheless. When the architect met with the approving body in the county to review the plans, the solar wasn't even on the docket. But somehow the topic came up, and the review agents said, in effect, "Good luck. We're never going to let you put any of that up. Anyway, there are going to be better, easier, more efficient ways to do that in the future that aren't so visible. You should wait for that technology."

Anson went back and met with the team. "How do we get this done?" he asked. They said, almost in a chorus, "Never mind. It's too complicated. The owner has decided to back-burner energy efficiency and renewables. Let's can the whole thing." And they did.

In the postmortem, Anson points out three barriers that are hard to overcome. The first is that the media (aided by the Bush administration) perpetuate the myth that technology is evolving and if we just wait something will get developed to solve our problems cheaper, smaller, and easier (Joe

Romm's "technology trap"). As a result, people can justify inaction. (Exhibit A was the Bush administration's focus on hydrogen as a transportation fuel, a technology that is twenty years out from mainstream use, if it happens at all.) As Anson points out, the technology has evolved, and the price has come down . . . and in the end the sun hitting the earth's surface only provides about one hundred watts of energy per square foot, so no matter how efficient solar panels get (and they are now between 14 and 18 percent efficient at converting sunlight to electricity), they're still going to need some space.

The second barrier is that the approvals process often makes new or creative projects like Anson's impossible. County approval boards never want to support anything perceived as ugly; in addition, they are often overwhelmed with work and don't have time to answer questions that are new and different (curveballs like "can you dig geoexchange wells outside the property line?").*

In the end, as Anson glumly concludes, "The reality is nobody really wants to do anything." His point: Business as usual rules. This is somewhat of an overstatement, since Anson makes his living in part by working with people who do want to do things and are pretty excited about it. But the challenges of moving the mainstream remain.

The third barrier is the ultimate problem of cost, which can never be too low for people. Cost will always be a barrier.

*Or in our experience with the CRMS solar project described in Chapter 7: "Can we legally build a solar farm on agricultural land?"

Anson describes a dreadlocks-wearing hippie biking up to him at a coffee shop on an $8,000 mountain bike and asking what it would take to make her house net-zero-energy. The answer was $35,000, of which $20,000 would come back in rebates. "Holy cow, that is way too expensive!" (No, it's almost free, Anson thought.) "They need to bring the price down." But "they" have brought the price down. And for the price of the bicycle, the hippie could have been halfway there.

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable energy is energy that is generated from sunlight, rain, tides, geothermal heat and wind. These sources are naturally and constantly replenished, which is why they are deemed as renewable. The usage of renewable energy sources is very important when considering the sustainability of the existing energy usage of the world. While there is currently an abundance of non-renewable energy sources, such as nuclear fuels, these energy sources are depleting. In addition to being a non-renewable supply, the non-renewable energy sources release emissions into the air, which has an adverse effect on the environment.

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