The path to low and net-zero energy buildings

September 16, 2009

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl

President and Vice President

Illinois Renewable Energy Association

In explaining the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center’s (SEDAC) efforts to reduce energy use in buildings in Illinois, Andy Robinson reminded participants at the Aug. 8-9 Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair in Oregon, Ill., that business operators are most interested in energy reductions that offer substantial savings within three to five years as opposed to those that take a longer time to recapture investment costs.

When the price of oil hit $140 per barrel last year, interest in energy efficiency was intense. In Connecticut, where the price of electricity is 21 cents per kilowatt hour, selling solar electrical installations is far easier than in Illinois with electric prices between 7 cents and 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

Ignoring the rapid fluctuations in oil and natural gas prices of the last few years, long-term pricing trends are higher. Oil should be selling at $100 per barrel right now. The cost of securing new, deep-sea oil and gas is high, as is the price of importing liquefied natural gas. Rising energy costs also push up the cost of building new electrical generating plants.

As energy prices have risen, the cost of energy efficiency has fallen. With existing state incentives through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the new federal stimulus package, interest in energy efficiency should remain strong. In 2008, managers of a building needing a new roof decided to install 4 inches of polyiso insulation under it and experienced a 66 percent savings in their consumption of natural gas. Such savings are impressive, and the benefits will increase as the price of natural gas returns to levels reflecting the higher cost of securing new supplies.

Any state accepting funds from the federal stimulus package for energy efficiency must have a residential energy efficiency code in place. Such building codes are only effective if they are enforced at the local level. They can also be considered as “barely legal” in that they represent the minimal level of insulation and air tightness required by law.

Professional organizations representing architects and heating and cooling engineers are making efforts to raise public awareness of the substantial energy savings possible by exceeding the minimal levels required by law. One effort has a stated goal of having a market-viable home by 2030 which achieves a 70 percent reduction in all energy consumption, including heating, cooling and electrical while securing the remaining 30 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources.

It is already technically possible to build homes meeting the zero net-energy home standard. However, the cost is estimated to be about 15 percent higher than conventional construction. If energy prices rise as dramatically as expected, the low energy costs of operating efficient buildings will be a distinct bonus.

As SEDAC’s experiences indicate, operators of businesses, schools and municipal buildings tend to select energy solutions with a quick economic recovery time such as lighting upgrades, adding ceiling insulation and either repairing or upgrading heating and air-conditioning systems. They offer four levels of service starting with phone consultations, walk-through energy audits, thorough energy audits with reports on efficiency actions for a building and the cost and savings from implementing them. They also provide a list of firms offering energy installation services. SEDAC’s Web site: www.smartenergy.arch.uiuc.edu.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the September 16-22, 2009 issue

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