Jill Fehrenbacher

GREEN BUILDING 101: Eco-Power and Energy Efficiency

by , 06/05/14

Most of us underestimate or ignore our incredible dependence on electricity, but there’s nothing like a blackout caused by overzealous summertime air conditioner use to remind us of the importance of responsible, efficient usage. Just as we can cause a major outage through the accumulation of our personal actions, we can as easily facilitate the reverse effect through simple, smart choices about what kind of energy we use, and how we use it. Today’s Green Building 101 talks about how to retrofit your home to be more energy-efficient, as well as how to convert to more clean, green and efficient sources of energy. From simply turning off lights to installing photovoltaics, we’ve got you covered.


At home, you now have more choices than ever for becoming energy efficient and environmentally friendly. If you are building or renovating your house, you can get LEED-H points for everything from buying Energy Star appliances and lighting fixtures, to installing a renewable electricity generation system such as solar panels or wind turbines.

Even if you aren’t building or renovating right now, there are many little steps you can take to inch your way towards energy independence:

Green Your Utilities

A surprising number of power companies offer the option to purchase green power, and many that don’t supply renewable energy directly offer credit schemes that effectively offset standard energy consumption by helping to fund progress towards more sustainable sources. The EPA has a region-specific guide to help you locate a green power supplier in your area.


Cut Down on Home Energy Use

1) Kill your vampire power: Keeping things plugged in, even when they are switched off, sips a constant stream of energy out of your power outlets. Unplug your cell phone chargers, stereos and toaster ovens, and watch your energy bills sink.

2) Buy Energy Star appliances: These are certified and labeled so that you know you are getting an energy efficient machine. If you have old, tired appliances in your house, consider investing in something new. Although you have to pay up front to buy something new, you’ll be surprised to see how much less cash efficient appliances demand over time.

3) Turn off your lights! You just don’t need to have them on that much – especially during the day if your home gets decent daylight. LED bulbs save energy over incandescents, and going to bed at a normal hour means that you won’t be burning the midnight oil.

Related:  See How Decorview Revamped Our Windows with Beautiful and Energy-Efficient Honeycomb Shades

Go Off-Grid

If you’ve already taken all the baby steps towards renewable energy and are ready for more serious action, you may want to consider setting up your own personal energy-generating system at home. Obviously, as with all building and renovation projects, this sort of thing is an investment and the upfront costs are not cheap. However, the cost of installing your own solar or wind generators often pays for itself in a few years time with all the money you save in energy bills – not to mention tax breaks and improved property values. Here are some of your options:

Solar Power

The sun is the most reliable, renewable and clean energy source we have, so it’s amazing to me that more people don’t use solar power. Not only can you use passive solar design to heat and cool your house more efficiently, but you can generate your own heat and electricty using photovoltaics. Typical barriers to entry in the past have included high costs, low efficiency, and plain old reticence to stick bulky and ugly looking things like solar panels atop our roofs. Fortunately, there have been massive improvements in photovoltaic technology in the past few years, and solar power is now accessible to pretty much everyone.

Photovoltaic systems have become cheaper, more efficient, and most importantly, a lot better looking in the past few years. Say goodbye to the ugly awkward roof-mounted panels of the 70s – today’s photovoltaics are often incorporated directly into the materials you use to clad your house. There are now solar roofing shingles, solar side-cladding, and even solar-powered glass windows!

Geothermal

Often people have the idea that geothermal energy can only be harnassed in geologically active regions of the world such as Iceland, Italy and California. Not so! While that might be where the majority of geothermal power plants exist – anywhere you can drill down into the earth, you can heat up water: creating a clean, efficient energy source for heating and cooling your home, completely bypassing the whole need for boilers, furnaces and all that jazz.. In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency proclaimed geothermal heat pumps – aka “ground-source heat pumps” – to be the most energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective residential heating system available.

Related: World’s First Magma-Enhanced Geothermal System Created in Iceland  

Wind Power

Wind power is blowing up right now. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “Wind is the world’s fastest-growing energy source with an average annual growth rate of 29 percent over the last ten years.” Most people are familiar with the pinwheel-like design of a wind turbine; in rural areas, you’ll often see wind farms lined with giant, slow-spinning blades. The idea is simple: rotating turbine blades gather kinetic energy from the wind, spinning an internal shaft that generates power. This process is incredibly clean, producing zero emissions.

At home, there are two primary ways to get wind power: you can purchase it through a power company that offers wind, or you can get a residential-scale turbine for your own home. The first option tends to be easier, more scalable, and more reliable. The company Renewable Choice, for example, offers flexible services which allow you to switch to 100% wind, supplement your standard energy with partial wind power, or just purchase credits that offset your fossil fuel energy usage by supporting the advancement of wind technology.

If you get a small turbine for home, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you’re generating some power right on your property, and will likely save some money and use less energy from the municipal grid. That said, when the wind isn’t blowing at your house, you can’t rely on the accumulated “energy bank” that comes with buying wind from a bigger supplier.

Micro-Hydro

As the term suggests, micro-hydro is power generated from water currents on a small scale. Compared to tidal (or lunar) power generated from ocean tides or large hydroelectric dams, micro-hydro generally comes from river currents and provides energy for a small number of buildings in close proximity to the source. The process mimics a wind turbine in that the running water rotates a wheel or blades that generate energy. While it’s not as practical or as widely applicable as solar or wind, micro-hydro is extremely economical, and where water is available and fast-flowing, it’s also highly efficient. Because it’s great for off-grid living, it’s also an excellent application in developing countries where there is no grid to connect to.

Green Building 101, Energy efficiency, Philips Simplicity LED light bulbs, Energy efficient architecture, green architecture

Net Metering

If ever there were a concrete illustration of our ability to conserve power and advance sustainable technology, it’s the picture of an electric meter running backwards. “Net metering” is a method for incentivizing consumer investment in renewable energy portfolios. When customers generate more power than they are using, the excess gets stored for later use, or fed back into the grid for more even distribution across the board. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for consumers and suppliers alike, and it dramatically eases the environmental burden of power demands, all while giving renewable energy the added allure of financial gain for all. (See more at the U.S. Dept. of Energy.)

Stay tuned for more Green Building 101!

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15 Comments

  1. Alix Taye February 9, 2008 at 3:03 am

    i like to know some more about what u doing and about u company
    thanks
    Alix

  2. penny jones November 29, 2006 at 9:31 am

    THere are newer, better & more exologically designed windmills now. You should feature them

  3. sustainabledesignupdate... September 1, 2006 at 6:43 pm

    [...] Inhabitat is one of our favorite sites, check out Eco-Power here. [...]

  4. William H Fitch III August 24, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    Hi Again:

    Don’t mean to seem like I am “jumping down…” etc.. It is just a little frustrating when a “corporate” identity like the power companies sets the tone for an entire industry’s PR and information. I would agree in part to Agustin’s remarks above. Going solo for electric is an expensive proposition and is usually only cost effective if you are along way from the grid or you have some kind of high energy constant power source like a big year round stream with allot of head potential.

    My comment on PV relating to Active SDHW was spurred by people mentioning to me how they want to put PV on their home so their electric water heater can be solar powered!! When you know what is going on from an engineering point of view, then, watching people plan their actions based on the current “buzz”, you kind of “shake your head”. In an article I wrote recently, one of my comments was that, “…you first decide on which renewable energy(s) is the right choice and then you decide on the best way to use it. Generally speaking, it is best to “capture” heat for heating applications and electricity for uses that can only be satisfied with electricity. It most cases that will yield the fastest return on the investment.”

    All articles on RE are needed to educate the public at large. I just wish there was a better “balance” focusing on choices made with good engineering and resisting as much as possible any current “hype” and its real motivations.

    …..Bill

  5. Agustin August 24, 2006 at 1:47 pm

    I don’t see how going off-grid is “greener” than staying on the grid. Yes, you would control the technology you use to generate the power, but then you also have to buy, maintain, and eventually replace, a large battery bank. And when the battery bank is charged and the wind turbine is still generating, all that energy goes to waste.

    A much better system, in my opinion, is net metering. No batteries to buy or throw out when they wear out, no need to have both wind and solar (the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine), much easier and cheaper to install in most cases, and if you generate surplus energy, other people will use it.

  6. Sterling August 24, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    I have to agree with Bill’s last comment- passive solar for domestic hot water is the fastest payback of any RE technology on the market for the average consumer.

    Plus, for new construction in colder climates, it can be tied to an in-floor radiant heat system as well, realizing even more savings.

    And Jill- the passive solar series was awesome!

  7. Anne August 24, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    as someone who is new to many of the “green” practices talked about in these articles, i greatly appreciate them. they are a quick way to BEGIN learning. as someone who has just purchased their first home, i find these articles informative and a great place to start. every week though, there are people who are quick to jump down the author’s throat. i take these articles as introductions and they always spur thought that otherwise may not have been. thanks!

  8. William H Fitch III August 24, 2006 at 2:15 am

    Hi Jill:

    Passive yes which is good, but where is the one on active SDHW which should be on every house in the USA that has access to the sun? The average home uses 8 to 12 kWh per day for DHW. It is the second biggest user of energy. For under $4000 you can subsidize 90% of that in a climate like PA which is not any sunbelt. Figure out how big and more importantly how much a grid tied PV array would cost to yield the same amount of energy. I guarantee you the number isn’t $4000 or even close before any incentives for either. The whole grid tied movement is not because PV is the best way to go but because it benefits the power companies, period.

    …..Bill

  9. Jill Fehrenbacher Jill August 23, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    Kyle and Bill-

    Please understand that Green Building 101 is a SERIES of articles and this week’s article is specifically focused on electrical power and utilities. If you are interested in reading more about insulation, passive solar heating and cooling and other elements of home eco-efficiency, please read further back into the series and check out the articles we have explicitely written on those subject matters:

    INSULATION
    http://inhabitat.com/blog/2006/08/10/lets-talk-about-insulation-baby/

    HEATING AND COOLING / PASSIVE SOLAR DESIGN:
    http://inhabitat.com/blog/2006/08/09/green-building-101-energy-atmosphere-part-1/

    Thanks, Jill

  10. Jill Fehrenbacher Jill August 23, 2006 at 10:21 pm

    Greg-

    Thanks for your comment. I understand the difference between geothermal heating and geothermal electricity production, and I thought I explained this in the article, but I guess I did not make the distinction clear enough. Readers, FYI – what we are talking about mostly in this article is geothermal residential heating – not geothermal electricity which is produced en masse by geothermal power plants. I will make a couple quick edits to the article to try to make this distinction more clear.

    Thanks- Jill

  11. William H Fitch III August 23, 2006 at 9:03 pm

    Typical article making solar all about PV, the most inefficient extraction of solar energy and leaving out solar thermal, the most efficient form of energy extraction from the sun, except for the one word mention of passive solar.

    …..Bill

  12. Sarah Rich Sarah August 23, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    Kyle – Green Building 101 is a running series. We are covering energy efficiency over several posts. Our August 9 issue covered insulation: http://inhabitat.com/blog/2006/08/09/green-building-101-energy-atmosphere-part-1/

    And we also did a special feature on insulation the next day: http://inhabitat.com/blog/2006/08/10/lets-talk-about-insulation-baby/

  13. Kyle H. Onaka August 23, 2006 at 6:34 pm

    Aloha!
    Where is energy efficient building insulation in all of this??
    A building is not energy efficient in any climate if it does not have insulation. Insulation is the major factor in any building and it appears that you have missed the basic foundation for building energy efficiency.
    Please be more pro-active and educate people properly.

  14. nathan August 23, 2006 at 6:14 pm

    Malcolm Gladwell has a great post about the Geothermal setup his dad uses:

    http://gladwell.typepad.com/gladwellcom/2006/08/the_case_for_ge.html

  15. Greg Thomas August 23, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    You are making the common error of confusing geothermal power with geothermal heat pumps. Geothermal power is based on using steam (212oF) coming from the earth. There are limited locations where this is viable. Geothermal heat pumps use heat pumps to extract heat energy from the ground at normal ground temperatures (30oF-60oF). The geothermal heat pumps have long vertical or horizontal pipes in the ground to assist the collection of heat from the ground in heating mode, or the rejection of heat to the ground in cooling mode. In heating mode the heat pumps take this low level energy from the ground and condense the heat, increasing the temperature to the point (100oF-110oF) where it is useful for heating homes and businesses. The heat pump’s compressors do use electricity to condense the heat, but there is a mechanical advantage of 3:1 or 4:1 over using electricity directly as the heat source. Think of your refrigerator pulling heat out of the cold freezer and pushing it into your house off the coils on the back of your refrigerator, except instead of your cold freezer, the geothermal heat pump is pulling heat from the cool ground.

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