Future of customized heat for each person in every building?

A MIT lab is working on heat that follows people in buildings:

Energy-eating buildings are a global issue. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), every year buildings in the country account for 36% of domestic energy demand and 65% of electricity demand.

The MIT SENSEable City Laboratory is studying a “customised climate” in buildings. An infrared heating system, called Local Warming, tracks the presence of people in a space and generates a collimated infrared energy beam, which follows the steps of users. The system allows energy savings of up to 90%. A further development will allow each person to customise his/her ‘climate area’ in the building.

“European and US buildings have different problems in terms of dimensions and efficiency,” explains Carlo Ratti, director of the Laboratory. “In Europe, older buildings are smaller and sometimes less efficient, while the USA still suffers from the big McMansion wave. But in both cases a staggering amount of energy is wasted on heating or cooling empty offices or partially occupied buildings.” The McMansion architectural style, born in the 1980s, is characterised by oversized homes and an attempt to produce a luxury effect.

Today, according to Ratti, homes are also able to benefit from smart thermostats such as Nest, property of Google, and these are like low-hanging fruit: “They are very easy to install”, he explains, “and can make a traditional heating system responsive to people’s habits and seasonal changes. They are primarily being used in private homes but they would work very well in public building too.”

It would be fascinating to see how customized heat for each person might work – do we all get our tractor beam? – though I imagine it is prohibitively expensive at this point. Additionally, rehabbing old buildings is a difficult task. Still, there is a lot of progress to be made in the area of energy efficiency: heating whole buildings, particularly homes, can be inefficient. The trick may be guaranteeing owners that they will save money in the long run after paying so much up front for the new technologies.

“Megacities Might Not Save the Planet After All”

One researcher suggests not all megacities are as efficient as they might be:

It turns out that while density equals efficiency, “megacity” does not necessarily equal density. Many megacity dwellers live outside those hyper-efficient city centers, Kennedy explains. Look at New York—if you live in Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn and Queens, you’re probably getting around on the subway. But if you live in Westchester, New Haven, or Newark? You’re probably driving your car—maybe not into the city center, but around it. And there are a lot of you. That’s why New York is almost off the chart in its consumption of transportation fuel, despite all its great rail.


But not all megacities consume as many resources as New York. Look at the ones clustered at the bottom end of transportation energy use: Mumbai. Karachi. Lagos. Cairo. Delhi. These are also some of the cities that use the least amount of electricity per capita. Unfortunately that’s not because their electrical grids are super-efficient. It’s because not everyone living there has electricity. “There’s huge disparities between the amount of resources being used between the wealthiest megacities and the poorest ones,” Kennedy says. In the latter, the resource inputs aren’t enough to support a basic standard of living for all citizens…

So while developed-world megacities should consider reining in their gasoline and electricity use—or expanding center-city style efficient infrastructure to the ’burbs—growth (combined with smart policy) may be the answer to developing-world megacities’ woes. Which is good, because if one thing’s for sure it’s that megacities are growing, and they’re not going to stop.

So the issue may not really be density but a higher order issue of social class. In other words, efficiency is the result of different processes depending on the wealth and development of particular cities and countries. In wealthier countries, individuals have the resources to spread out and can afford to consume too much. On the other hand, poor countries have big cities with lots of residents who can’t afford to consume what they need.

Heading off a future where American cities suffer more power outages

One sign of urban growth around the world is the proliferation of urban lights. But, what happens if many American cities are at risk for blackouts?

Electricity blackouts will become more common as surging power demand outpaces public and private utilities’ abilities to provide a continuous and reliable flow of power to customers, a new research paper asserts.

The problem, while global in scope, could be especially pronounced in urban areas where old and often fragile power distribution systems are being tested in ways not conceived of a generation ago, states the research paper that examined the causes behind 50 blackout events in 26 countries since 2003, including several major U.S. outages.

“Understanding the nature of blackouts is more than just a record of past failures,” researchers Hugh Byrd and Steve Matthewman write in the Journal of Urban Technology. “[B]lackouts are dress rehearsals for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity, and as urban areas become more compact, with greater consequences.”

Their research paper, titled “Energy and the City: The Technology and Sociology of Power (Failure),” is the latest in a series of studies examining grid failures and warning that the world should “prepare for the prospect of coping without electricity as instances of complete power failure become increasingly common.”…

The paper estimates the economic damage caused by power outages in the United States alone at $25 billion to $180 billion annually, although the indirect costs of such disruptions could be up to five times greater.

It is a little difficult to operate a world-class city when the power is out or if there are consistent threats of blackouts. As this paper suggests, such incidents could be crippling given the amount of critical infrastructure and day-to-day necessities are dependent on electricity.

If this is the case, what are cities doing about it? Not having enough electricity is a fundamental issue that requires large-scale attention. Building power plants, transmission lines, and resilient systems are not sexy but they are critical.

Cost, adapting to different climates big obstacles to building passive houses in the US

The New York Times explains passive houses and also describes several obstacles to building more of them:

Proponents of passive building argue that the additional cost (which is estimated at 5 to 20 percent) will come down once construction reaches critical mass and more American manufacturers are on board. And there are a few signs that day may be coming. More than 1,000 architects, builders and consultants have received passive-house training in this country; at least 60 houses or multifamily projects are in the works; and Marvin Windows, a mainstream manufacturer based in Minnesota, recently began making windows that meet passive certification standards…

“What I’m worried about,” he said, “is that the current halo around the passive-house standard will result in its being incorporated into the building code. That would be unfortunate because they are unnecessarily expensive houses, from $300,000 to $500,000 on average, that cost more than will ever be justified by lifetime energy savings or carbon reductions.”

Mr. Holladay favors a more flexible formula called the Pretty Good House, which promotes modest improvements in insulation coupled with renewable energy from solar panels — an approach, he said, that achieves similar energy savings without the additional expense.

To make things more complicated, no two passive houses are likely to be built to exactly the same specifications. Thousands of variables, including the architectural design, the size of the house, how many people will live there, and longitude and latitude, are taken into consideration by the sophisticated software created by Dr. Feist and his Passivhaus Institute in Darmstadt, Germany…

Figuring out how to make the model work in the hot, humid Southeast is a bigger challenge, something the Europeans have not had to deal with. With this in mind, Ms. Klingenberg’s organization is working to develop American standards, taking into account variations in energy use and leakage rates from one climate zone to another; they are expected to be released this fall.

In other words, these are complicated homes and this gets added to the cost. Like other technological innovations, manufacturing and building at a larger scale could soon help make them more accessible and understandable. Additionally, the context matters as well. If standards like building codes and environmental expectations about new houses change plus consumers display more interest in unique, green homes, there may be more and more passive homes in the coming years.

McMansion owners in the Chicago suburbs get cheaper ComEd rates than city-dwellers

Crain’s Chicago Business highlights an interesting part of the regulations for ComEd: a suburban homeowner pays a more advantageous rater than a city resident.

The reason: The price to reserve “capacity”—the right to buy electricity during peak-demand periods—will soar next June. That rising cost, which is embedded in the energy price on customers’ electric bills, will hit households consuming small amounts of power far harder than owners of large homes using a lot of electricity. Residents of wealthy suburbs with larger, high-consumption homes could well pay 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour less for electricity than city residents.

Why? ComEd allocates the capacity charge evenly among all residential customers regardless of their usage. So the owner of a city bungalow consuming 500 kilowatt-hours per month pays the same dollar amount for capacity as the owner of a McMansion in the suburbs using three times as much. The McMansion owner’s total electric bill will be higher than the bungalow owner’s, but the McMansion owner will pay less per kilowatt-hour because the added capacity charge makes up a much smaller percentage of the total.

This disparity hasn’t been an issue to date because capacity costs have been unusually low over the past two years. But the price for capacity in PJM Interconnection—the 13-state power grid that includes northern Illinois—will rise 350 percent for the year beginning in June 2014. That will have a bigger impact on towns and cities with lots of small-usage households such as Chicago than it will on suburbs featuring larger homes…

Evidence of “have” and “have-not” municipalities already is starting to appear. Two wealthy north suburbs with many large homes, Bannockburn and Kildeer, last month locked in an energy price for their residents of just below 5 cents per kilowatt-hour for the next two years beginning in September. By contrast, under the Integrys contract, Chicago residents pay 5.42 cents, or 8 percent more. And next May, when the city must reprice the deal, it’s expected to struggle to beat a ComEd price that will approach 7 cents.

The article doesn’t answer the most basic question: how did this disparity end up in the regulations in the first place?

The article suggests that people in the city or suburbs should be paying the same electricity rate. It is only fair to pay equally. But, I wonder if some wouldn’t argue that the suburbanites who are more spread out, require more infrastructure to reach this larger area, and tend to live in bigger houses should actually be paying higher rates. Couldn’t that be written into the regulations? This may not be politically popular but I imagine the argument could be made. Indeed, using the term McMansion in comparison to the humble Chicago bungalow leans in this direction by referring to unnecessarily large homes.

Looking for the future of housing at the Solar Decathlon in Madried

Check out three designs from an international housing competition in Madrid: a “Heliomet SunBloc” house, the Bee House, and a house made out of recycled wood and mushroom spores:

London Metropolitan University’s “Heliomet SunBloc” European Solar Decathlon house combines novel construction methods with unusual materials. The house is designed so that it can be placed on the rooftops of existing buildings or other disused areas, answering a difficult question about future suburban growth. Allied with a PV-T (PhotoVoltaic-Thermal) array, the design would help supply electricity and hot water not only to its own structure, but to the host building as well.

The primary material consists of relatively low-cost and lightweight EPS foam that allows unique interior and exterior designs to be created. …

The Bee House … makes extensive use of living walls and green roofs planted with bee-friendly vegetation. This built-in beekeeping system, completed by a backyard hive, serves to pollinate the home’s surrounding garden areas, which keep the homestead stocked with homegrown veggies as well as honey. The Bee House includes a work area and boutique shop where honey and beeswax-based soaps and candles can be sold to the public, perfect for the urban farmer with an entrepreneurial bent…

To say that this house is aspirational is putting (it) lightly, as the structure can’t currently be built as designed — largely because it’s constructed around a wall system based on recycled wood that has been colonized by mushroom spores. The myco-treatment, so to speak, creates a fire- and mold-resistant, highly insulating building block ideal for green building. Oh, and it produces two edible mushroom crops in the process. (Call it the 100 Mile House meets the 100 Mile Diet.)

We are probably a long ways from seeing any of these three designs in practice. However, they do hint at some possible trends:

1. Greener houses. I think the question is how far builders and buyers are willing to go. Far enough to save a little money? Enough to significantly increase the price/value of the home?

2. Trying to utilize and connect to nature. Many single-family houses are sort of sealed off from nature even if they are in more suburban, idyllic settings. This could include everything from an uptick in gardens and compost piles, using green roofs, providing more rooms that don’t feel so sealed off from the outside, or just harnessing nature for energy purposes (solar plus geothermal and other options).

3. Looking for ways to build homes in denser settings. One assumption made by a number of thinkers is that future homes and suburbs will be more dense due to rising energy costs (particularly an increasing cost in driving due to higher gas prices and possibly higher gas taxes to keep up with better fuel efficiency) and young adults and retiring adults who want walkable communities as well as places that offer mixed-uses and more of a neighborhood feel.

Not much of a price premium for net-zero-energy homes

As more homebuyers seek out green homes and want to reduce energy bills, they can purchase a net-zero-energy home for a price that may not be as high as you think:

The Spencer’s new home is part of a niche, though growing, segment of the U.S. housing market — net-zero-energy homes, many of which use solar energy to achieve net-zero-energy use vs. consumption. In the sun-sparse days of winter, energy consumption often exceeds generation, but in the sunny days of summer, energy generation often far exceeds consumption.

As of February 2012, 37 homes have been rated net-zero-energy or better on the industry-standard Home Energy Rating System e-scale of the U.S.-standard auditor. This number could grow 1,000 percent or more in 2012 if projects continue as planned.

“Interest has been off the charts,” said Todd Louis, vice-president of Tommy Williams Homes, the Florida-based building company that built the Spencers’ home. So far, the company has built and sold four, and has plans to build 35 to 40 more in 2012. The price of their net-zero-energy homes are still $30,000 to $40,000 higher than those that are not net-zero-energy, said Williams, but that margin is dropping with a decline in photovoltaic costs. The Spencers paid $250,000 for their home…

Shea Homes has long featured extremely energy-efficient designs, though the upgrade to solar panels could be costly — around $30,000, said Asay. He and his wife were considering the upgrade, but when the announcement was made that the new net-zero homes, with solar, were only $7,000 more than the previous base model, they jumped: “Sign us up.”

This approach is different than another housing approach that has generated buzz: passive houses are homes that are so insulated that they use a ventilator to move air from inside to outside (and vice versa – see some diagrams here). The energy costs in these homes are very low. In contrast, net-zero-energy homes have higher energy costs than passive homes but then offset the energy usage. In this article, the homes have solar panels (I wonder if this could be done in other ways – wind turbines on the roof?) which also means that the homes have to be in climates and locations with more sunlight. If the costs for doing this are reasonable and introduced completely at the beginning (meaning it can be spread out across the life of a mortgage), I could see how this is attractive for homebuyers.

I expect that we will see more homes like this in the future: beyond wanting to reduce energy bills, more homeowners appear to be interested in green homes. The housing industry is starting to warm to this idea and there are a number of ways that new homes can adapt: more sustainable materials, being a passive house or a net-zero-energy house, downsizing or right-sizing, and being in denser neighborhoods where homeowners can drive less and use less land.

Considering what the “green Loop” might look like

Amidst talk of eco-cities, a Chicago architectural firm has put together a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent within Chicago’s Loop. How to accomplish this: retrofit older buildings rather than building a lot of new, green buildings.

The architects break what they call the Central Loop into four types of buildings: heritage buildings (1880-1945), which are clad in heat-absorbing masonry and have operable windows; midcentury modern buildings (1945-75), which hog energy due to their vast expanses of glass and heavy reliance on air conditioning; post-energy-crisis buildings (1975-2000), which show greater energy-efficiency but are burdened by an unanticipated rise in computer use; and energy-conscious buildings (2000-present), which continue to improve efficiency but are in relatively short supply.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: The key to cutting pollution isn’t building new green buildings. There simply aren’t enough of them to make a difference. The only way to lower our carbon footprint is to make the buildings we already have more energy-efficient.

That’s possible, as evidenced by the recent transformation of the Merchandise Mart, the massive yet graceful Art Deco commercial and trade show building along the Chicago River. At 4.2 million gross square feet, it’s one of the world’s largest buildings. By taking a variety of steps — from installing energy-saving water pumps to promoting eco-friendly products to the building’s tenants — the Mart cut its overall energy consumption by 21 percent from 2006 to 2010, executives there say.

I wonder how this plan would be received by businesses and building owners. While they suggest energy costs will decrease in the long run and rents may increase, such retrofitting could be costly in the short-term and there could be some anxiety about doing these things in the middle of a tough real estate and business market.

And how much would the City of Chicago really get behind this? Mayor Daley has drawn plaudits in the past for promoting ideas like rooftop gardens but these are limited in number. The City itself faces significant financial troubles in the coming years and I imagine issues like jobs, pensions, crime and the number of police in the streets, will dominate conversations for a while.

I would enjoy seeing their charts or models to see which particular buildings in the Loop use more or less energy. The picture that leads this report on the plan probably shows carbon emissions or energy use by building.