Category Archives: Building Codes

Zoning and Certification Standards for Small Wind Turbines

Until recently, wind turbine manufacturers and operators were challenged by the tasks of keeping machines operating reliably and improving energy capture. Although dramatic improvements have been made in both areas, there have been occasions when acoustic emissions proved so vexing they overshadowed performance and reliability issues. For example, some wind turbines suffer an unfavorable reputation for noise problems associated with high tip speeds, furling, or blade flutter. Because of the potential for installation near residences, noise may be even more important for small turbines than for large turbines installed in wind power plants. – 2004 NREL Report

Complaints (from customers or others) about sound characteristics are rare, but are usually related to turbines with flexible blades and side furling mechanisms. – Canadian Wind Energy Association, Small Wind Purchasing Guide

The market for small residential and rural wind turbines (up to 10KW) has been growing at double digit rates for several years and is now entering its young adult stage as venture capital enters the market and certification standards are being introduced in both the U.S. and U.K. markets.  Wind energy is roughly on par with PV in return on investment, but faces much tougher zoning issues due to the visual impact of towers and the lack of reliable and easy to use acoustic criteria for use by zoning officials.  As a result, the greatest market challenge for small wind turbine manufacturer’s and early adopters that want to take advantage of the technology, is getting zoning approval in the more 25,000 different zoning districts within the U.S.

In my view, zoning ordinances should focus on easing height restrictions to recognize the physics of wind power, building permits to assure adequate tower foundations and anchoring, and on protecting consumers from unwarranted sound pollution.  Setbacks should be a function of both tower heights and the need for acoustic buffers.  I’ve attached my version of a model ordinance based on a review of what I think are best practices from the U.S., the U.K., and Canada including a method of assuring that no unwarranted sound disturbance crosses a property line.  The balance of this post will focus on the sound issue.

The American Wind Energy Association [AWEA] recommends the following noise provision in it’s model small wind ordinance:

For wind speeds in the range of 0-25 mph, small wind turbines shall not cause a sound pressure level in excess of 60 dB[A],  or in excess of 5 dB[A] above background noise, whichever is greater, as measured at the closest neighboring inhabited dwelling.  This level, however, may be exceeded during short-term events such as utility outages and severe wind storms.

In the sense that most small wind turbines operate below ambient noise levels under most conditions, this provision seems reasonable.  However, it is filled with loopholes that serve the small wind industry, but fail to protect the public from unwarranted sound pollution.  For example:

  1. Sound restrictions end at 25mph (presumably the definition of a “severe wind storm”) prior to the acoustic problems of furling and blade flutter start starting to become objectionable.
  2. When there is a blackout or “utility outage” and therefore no load on a grid-tied wind system, some turbine designs “free wheel” or spin a much higher rpm’s causing spikes in the acoustic emission.  This may also be true of off-grid systems whose batteries reach a full charge.
  3. 1)According to British Standard 4142 a “noise rating level” (i.e. the noise level once corrected for the presence of tones or other noise characteristics) of 10 dB above the background noise is likely to give rise to complaint, [and] one only 5 dB above background would be marginal…”. The proposed “5 dB[A] above background noise” is therefore right on the edge of being complaint worthy.  In addition, the “measured at the closest neighboring inhabited dwelling” takes the sound provision over the property line and does not account for future adjacent construction (i.e. the rights of future property owners).

In short, the AWEA model noise ordinance provision seems designed to protect legacy designs that have not been optimized for sound emission and to create the smallest possible acoustic buffer in an effort to open the market to smaller lot sizes.  However, the concept of a provision based on some level of emission in excess of background noise is a step in the right direction.  What that provision might be and how it might reasonably be enforced is another matter.  Before I tackle that topic, I think it’s important to review the new Small Wind Safety and Performance Standards sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association [AWEA] and the British Wind Energy Association [BWEA].

The BWEA standard was released in February 2008 and the AWEA standard is in process and currently available as a “Draft Document”.  Both standards will require a much needed third party verification of energy conversion performance and assure that minimum safety and quality standards are met.  This will allow consumers to easily compare the performance of competing designs and trade that performance off against cost, warranties, and other features.  It will also provide government incentive programs and zoning officials with an reasonable and acceptable list of “approved designs”.  Both standards are virtually identical relative to the provisions for energy conversion, safety, and quality.  However, language and requirements of the two standards diverge significantly relative to “Acoustic Sound Testing”.

The current AWEA “Rated Sound Level” states that:

The sound level that will not be exceeded 95% of the time, assuming an average wind speed of 5 m/s (11.2 mph), a Rayleigh wind speed distribution, 100% availability, and an observer location 60 m (~ 200 ft.) from the rotor center1, calculated from IEC 61400-11 test results, except as modified in Section III of this Standard.

In contrast, the BWEA “Rated Sound Level” provides for two conditions at higher wind speeds.  One appropriate for larger turbines and one for smaller residential zone turbines:

BWEA Reference 60m Sound Level, Lp,60m. The sound pressure level in dB(A) re 20 μPa rounded up to the nearest dB, at an observer distance of 60 m [~197 ft] from the rotor centre (i.e. a slant distance) and calculated from the Declared Apparent Emission Sound Power Level when the turbine is subjected to a wind speed of 8 m/s [17.9 mph] at its rotor centre. The 60 m distance is representative of the closest observer distance expected for a turbine toward the larger size of small wind turbines.

BWEA Reference 25m Sound Level, Lp,25m. The sound pressure level in dB(A) re 20 μPa rounded up to the nearest dB, at an observer distance of 25 m [~82 ft] from the rotor centre (i.e. a slant distance) and calculated from the Declared Apparent Emission Sound Power Level when the turbine is subjected to a wind speed of 8 m/s [17.9 mph] at its rotor centre. The 25 m distance is representative of the closest observer distance expected for a micro or domestic size turbine.

Both standards provide for a method of determining sound levels at X distance from a turbine relative  to ambient(background) sound levels.  However, as currently written the AWEA standard only provides information to make this calculation at the 5 m/s [11.2 mph] rated wind speed which bypasses the issues of furling, blade flutter, high wind speeds, free wheeling, and power outages.

In contrast, the BWEA standard includes the provision for an Emission Noise Map in their labeling requirement which maps the sound emission of the turbine relative to the distance from the turbine hub and the wind speed.  The map starts at the turbine cut-in speed and ends at the cut-out speed.  However, for turbines that do not “cut-out”(i.e. stop operating), “but achieve protection to high winds by various mechanisms such as furling their blades or yawing the turbine to cross-wind. In these cases the red and orange zones of the Noise Map will continue up to the wind scale maximum”.   This still doesn’t address free-wheeling and power outages, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  It should also be noted that the BWEA standard assesses a noise penalty of 5dB[A] if the turbine emits any specific tones that may be objectionable to the human ear.

BWEA Wind MapIn the appendix, the BWEA standard provides a method of  using the noise map to assess site suitability for U.K. zoning purposes based on the red, amber, and green zones.  In addition, using the Sound Power, Noise Slope, and Noise Penalty the standard provides equations for calculating the noise level at any wind speed and any distance from the turbine.  It also provides a conservative formula for estimating the ambient noise level in a “country field” as a function of wind speed.  According to the BWEA standard, the values from this background noise formula “can be taken as a worst-case scenario (i.e. the lowest ambient noise) for a rural background.”

In all fairness, the AWEA standard is still in draft form and may end up addressing small wind turbine acoustic issues in a better way, however from a consumer viewpoint the BWEA standard is currently far superior.  That said, how should zoning officials protect the public interest regarding small wind turbine sound emissions?  I’ll start with a list of basic premises:

  1. What’s at issue is not so much the sound emitted by the turbine, but the sound emitted in excess of the ambient noise conditions, especially night time noise conditions.
  2. The noise or sound limitations should be established at the property line.
  3. The sound emission criteria should include all conditions including high winds (furling, yawing, and flutter) and power outages (free wheeling).
  4. For some turbine designs, the effect of the above will be to increase the effective setback (and indirectly the minimum lot size) by creating an acoustic buffer in excess of any setback based on tower height.

Under most conditions wind turbine sound emissions disappear into the background offering only a faint whoosing sound to the human ear.  However, for zoning purposes an acoustic buffer should be required to encompass all operating conditions and to protect residents from turbine designs that have not been optimized for acoustic performance.  The best way to achieve that is to establish a property line sound level based on ambient noise levels plus some standard.

European noise standards tend to be more developed, so I’ll use those as a baseline.  In the U.K. the guideline is:

  • Daytime: A background noise + 5 dB[A] or 43dB[A] whichever is greater
  • Nighttime: A background noise + 5dB[A] or 35 to 40 dB[A] whichever is greater
  • Plus a 2 to 5dB(A) penalty for tones

In France the guideline is:

  • Background noise + 5dB[A] during the day
  • Background noise + 3 dB[A] at night

Since 3 dB[A] over background noise is barely discernible outside of the lab, and sleep disturbance should be the key criteria for a small wind turbine sound provision, I believe that 3dB[A] over background noise should be the property line limit for a zoning ordinance.  This is conservative in that any habitable building on an adjacent property will be setback an additional distance which provides additional acoustic buffer.

Language for the sound provision of my model Small Wind Turbine zoning would look something like this:

Acoustic Setback Requirement – The acoustic emission sound level of the Small Wind Turbine as measured at the property line, shall not be more than 3dB[A] over the background noise level under any operating conditions, including high winds, yawing, furling, and power outages.  Background noise may be calculated using Equation A.1 of the British Wind Energy Association [BWEA], Small Wind Turbine Performance and Safety Standard (February 2008) as plotted in Figure 1 below.

BWEA Background Noise Graph

Measured site specific background noise levels may also be used provided that they are verified via a survey and report prepared by a qualified engineer.  The acoustic setback from the property line required to meet the 3dB[A] over background noise level requirement can be satisfied/calculated in two ways:

  1. For Small Wind Turbines that are certified to the BWEA Small Wind Turbine Performance and Safety Standard (February 2008),  the wind turbine manufacturer shall provide calculations that use BWEA Equation A.2 to quantify the required acoustic setback.
  2. For Small Wind Turbines not certified to the BWEA standard, the wind turbine manufacturer shall provide certified data and calculations prepared by a qualified engineer that quantify the required acoustic setback.  These calculations must include a 5dB[A] penalty for any tonality according to ISO 1996-2:2007 Annex D based only on 1/3rd octave band data as follows:

The turbine is declared tonal if any 1/3rd octave band (in any of the spectra from section 3.4.16) is higher than its adjacent bands by

15 dB in the low frequency bands (50 to 125 Hz)

8 dB in the mid-frequency bands (160 to 400 Hz)

5 dB in the high frequency bands (500 to 10000 Hz)

The maximum wind speed used for the submitted calculations shall be the cut-out speed or for wind turbines that do not have a cut-out speed no less than 50 mph.

A proposed model small wind turbine ordinance is attached below in pdf format which includes provisions for height limitations based on physics, turbine size limitations based on turbine blade size and lot size ( consideration of scale),  requirements for building permits, and the acoustic provisions outlined in this post.

A Model Small Wind Zoning Ordinance

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Three Letters to Obama

The Obama administration has recently received three letters or petitions regarding energy policy.  As with any policy position they are shaped by the world views of the men and women who authored them.

Dr. James Hansen is head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading global climate change researcher.  It is not surprising that his proposal revolves around a tax policy aimed at decarbonizing the American economy and reducing greenhouse gases.

Edward Mazria is an architect and creator of the 2030 Challenge, a voluntary pledge that all new buildings and major building renovation be constructed to a carbon-neutral (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate) standard by 2030. Mazria’s proposal is centered on achieving building energy efficiency goals rewarded with lower mortgage rates in the case of residential construction and by accelerated depreciation in the case of commercial construction.  If enacted, it claims to both create millions of jobs and reduce carbon emissions.

Richard Heinberg is senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies,  Powerdown – Options and Actions for a Post – Carbon World, and the Oil Depletion Protocol.   Heinberg and the other authors of Post Carbon Institute’s “Real New Deal” marry the imperatives of climate change and the peaking and ultimate depletion of our fossil fuel resources into a comprehensive plan to transition the U.S. to a new energy economy.

All three proposals are valid and merit serious review, but only the Post Carbon Institute’s proposal offers a comprehensive view of the challenges we must face.  As such, the Hansen and Mazria proposals are important subsets of what needs to be a much larger solution.

Hansen sent an open letter to Barack and Michelle Obama.  Here are some relevant excerpts from the letter:

A rising carbon price is essential to “decarbonize” the economy, i.e., to move the nation toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most effective way to achieve this is a carbon tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry.  The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels.

The public will support the tax if it is returned to them, equal shares on a per capita basis (half shares for children up to a maximum of two child-shares per family), deposited monthly in bank accounts.  No large bureaucracy is needed.  A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average makes money.   A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend.  Not one cent goes to Washington.  No lobbyists will be supported.  Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public.

A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective.  It will increase energy prices, but low and middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead.  The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus economic activity, can be modulated by how fast the carbon tax rate increases.  Effects will permeate society.  Food requiring lots of carbon emissions to produce and transport will become more expensive and vice versa, encouraging support of nearby farms as opposed to imports from half way around the world.

A Two-Year, Nine-Million-Job Investment Proposal

The road to energy independence, economic recovery and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions runs through the Building Sector.” – Edward Mazria

The 2030 Challenge Stimulus plan is a two year investment commitment to create 9 million jobs overall and 4-million jobs in the construction sector.  It is a jobs growth and carbon reduction plan rolled into one.  In the residential sector it trades low interest rate loans off against investments to increase building energy efficiency.  For an existing home, the interest rate provided would be a function of renovating that home to some level below the existing energy code requirements in exchange for a lower mortgage rate.

Mortgage Interest Rate (subject to market conditions)  2030 Challenge Energy Reduction

4.0%    30% below code
3.5%    50% below code
2.5%    75% below code
2.0%    Carbon neutral

For example, a homeowner with a    current $272,300    mortgage with equity of $12,000, would have a mortgage balance of $260,300. At an interest rate of 6%, the current monthly mortgage payment would be $1633. If this homeowner wants to qualify for the 2.5% interest rate, they will need to renovate their home to use 75% less energy than that required by code, immediately creating jobs and putting construction teams back to work.

The cost of renovation would be approximately $51,250, which includes a solar system, which would qualify for a $7000 tax credit. The cost of the renovation, minus the tax credit, would be added to the mortgage balance, so that the new mortgage is now $304,550.    However, because of the significantly lower 2.5%    interest rate, the new mortgage payment is just $1203, a savings of $430 per month. With the additional monthly savings on energy bills of approximately $145, this homeowner would save a total of $575 per month.

Because building construction historically represents about 10% of GDP, Mazria thinks that the private building sector may be the key to reviving the U.S. economy.  He proposes that $96-billion be invested annually for the next two years in mortgage interest rate buy-downs and accelerated depreciation for commercial buildings.  As a result, Mazria claims that with a participation of only 5.8% of homes and 3.1% of commercial buildings the program would generate 9-million jobs and $1-trillion in private sector spending, and pay for itself in the form of increased tax revenue.

In addition to the economic claims, Mazria calculates that over the five year period, the proposal would reduce CO2 emissions by 504 million metric tons and energy consumption by 6.47 Quadrillion Btu.

Even at a participation of only 5.8% (over 4-million) of homes, Mazria’s proposal may have a scaling problem, as the country finds itself lacking the architectural, engineering, and code verification talent to transform that many homes in the proposed time-frame.  Conceptually however, this is a beautifully conceived plan and deserves serious attention.

The Real New Deal
Energy Scarcity and the Path to Energy, Economic, and  Environmental Recovery

The energy transition cannot be accomplished in four years or eight…  What can and must be accomplished in a single administration is the essential change of direction.

The Post Carbon Institute [PCI] argues that the current economic crisis provides the opportunity and potentially the political will to make a significant down payment on the transition to a renewable energy economy that would otherwise be inconceivable.  In fact if we don’t act now, the current crisis may just merge with “peak oil” and the effects of climate change to create a decades long global state of emergency.

PCI outlines a comprehensive program comprising five different solution sets.

  1. A massive and immediate shift to renewable energy (Hansen’s proposal fits here)
  2. The electrification of our transportation system
  3. The transformation to a “smart” electrical grid
  4. The de-carbonization and localization of our food production and delivery system
  5. The retrofit of our building stock for energy efficiency and distributed power generation. (Mazria’s proposal fits here)

Since the cost of such a transition spread over 20 years would be in the order of $4.5-trillion the authors admit that given the current financial meltdown, private capital will not be forthcoming and deficit spending by the government along with significant policy changes will be required to launch the transition.  To direct policy, the authors recommend creating “an Energy Transition Office, tied to no existing agency, specifically tasked with tracking and managing the transition and with helping existing agencies work together toward the common goal”.

The authors do not underestimate the enormous and unprecedented scope of their proposal.  Aside from avoiding or mitigating the devastating impacts of peak oil and climate change the potential  benefits are enormous and would include:

  • eliminating the need to police oil exporting areas of the world, saving billions of dollars a year in military expenditures
  • saving billions per year by creating a food system that substantially reduces obesity, cancer, and asthma
  • helping to create and foster skilled, self-reliant and resilient communities

Although the plan as presented merely serves to outline the possible solutions and the scope of the problems we face, what sets it apart is it all-embracing view of the resource depletion and environmental  perils we must resolve to survive.

Thoughts About a New Energy Economy
Calls for the transition to a new energy economy typically come from three main quarters.  All three are valid, but only one sees the forest for trees.

The national security quarter recognizes that we depend too much on imports from countries and regions that are either unstable and/or hostile to our national interests.  This argument for action plays well with the right, but does not recognize the environmental threat of global warming or greater economic peril of peak oil.  Although it forms the basis of an argument for an energy transition, it can equally be used to justify a more robust military policy.

The climate change quarter is currently dominant in the minds of the public and with policy makers.  It sees great peril and human suffering in the coming decades but doesn’t recognize that the peak oil is imminent and will soon take center stage.  The economic devastation of peak oil will likely be additive to the current debt crisis and put global warming on the back burner.  Ironically, the advent of peak oil will greatly reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming but the decline in oil supply alone will not be sufficient to drive atmospheric CO2 levels back to 350 PPM.

Peak oil is lesser known.  There is a peak oil caucus in congress, but there is little political will to take action in a county where nearly half the population believes in the battle cry of “drill baby drill”.  Unlike the effects of global warming which will be slow and indirect in coming, the effects of peak oil will be as sudden as the collapse of the World Trade Center and Lehman Brothers.  More shock and awe than a slow rising of the tides.  It will touch every corner of our economy with a combination of price shocks and shortages.  It will leave us with one chance and one chance only to transform our energy infrastructure to solar, wind, and geothermal using what remains of our rapidly depleting fossil fuel resources.

As I look to the future, I see three possible courses of action:

Option one is that we recognize the problem of resource depletion and take action well in advance of  the anticipated world wide peak in oil production.  Since peaking is imminent and the transition will take approximately two decades, unfortunately the ship has already sailed on option one. Looking back we will someday wish we had paid much more attention to Jimmy Carter.

With the election of Obama, option two is already in play, and we have begin to take some action based on fears of climate change and for reasons of national security.  However, our current actions are no where near sufficient to avoid extreme hardship.  The ship of state is on a collision course with the iceberg and we have only just given the order to reduce speed.  Our collision with destiny is now unavoidable and the question now is whether there will be a sufficient number of life boats.  In addition, just as we need it the most, we lack sufficient capital to make the transition in the face of the global financial meltdown.  This is not just another severe business cycle, this is the beginning of the  realignment of the the post WWII global financial system and the end of American economic dominance.  It is likely that peak oil will become evident just as the dollar loses its status as the world’s reserve currency and as a nation we may then be unable to fund the energy transition with either public or private funds.  Essentially bankrupt and losing our grip on global influence and power the country may lurch to the right in a desperate attempt to reclaim global dominance.

Option three is to maintain a posture of “drill baby drill denial” in spite of reality.  At this point the country may resort to engaging in “resource wars” to claim the world’s remaining oil reserves and to protect the American “way of life”.   This would be a policy doomed to failure and assured of increasing human misery.  It would also be a policy that will put us at risk of missing our only window to transition away from fossil fuels.  Call this the Mad Max policy.

My hope is that we’ll stick with option two and muddle through to a new and sustainable energy economy.  It promises to be extremely painful and disruptive decade or two of transition, but in the end we will find ourselves in a much healthier relationship with our environment and possibly with each other.

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The Obama Energy Plan and our Homes

How will Obama’s energy polices affect our homes?  We won’t really know until his proposals are debated and enacted by congress, but we can get a sense of what might happen from his campaign’s position statements.  From his campaign website’s fact sheet his stated position on building energy efficiency is as follows:

“Obama…will establish a goal of making all new buildings carbon neutral, or produce zero emissions, by 2030.  [He] will also establish a national goal of improving new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade to help us meet the 2030 goal.”

This is straight from the playbook of Ed Mazra’s Architecture 2030 Challenge.  As evidenced by the following quote from the 2030 website, the 2030 Challenge is predicated on climate change and the reduction of green house gas emissions associated with the Building Sector.

“Rapidly accelerating climate change (global warming), which is caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is now fueling dangerous regional and global environmental events. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration illustrates that buildings are responsible for almost half (48%) of all GHG emissions annually. Seventy-six percent of all electricity generated by US power plants goes to supply the Building Sector. Therefore, immediate action in the Building Sector is essential if we are to avoid hazardous climate change.”

I have two issues with the 2030 Challenge.

One is that the 48% responsibility for GHG emissions attributed to buildings is overstated.  The emissions assigned to the building sector are primarily the indirect result of drawing on electrical power generated from coal and natural gas fired power plants, so the question becomes whether to focus our resources on the building “demand” side, or the power plant “supply” side, or some combination of both.  In that broader context, we may find that it is much easier to deal with a few hundred power plants than to transform 150 million residential and commerical buildings.  From a public policy perspective, both the demand and supply side should be considered as a synergistic whole.

My second issue is more fundamental.  Architecture 2030 asks and answers the wrong question.  The question that Architecture 2030 asks is what actions should we take to mitigate the effect of the building sector on climate change.  However, the greater question is what actions should we take to render the building sector sustainable.  Once sustainability is on the table then we have to consider carrying capacity and carrying capacity overshoot at which point climate change is just another canary in the coal mine.

Carrying capacity is all about the ecological limits (capacity) of our planet’s resources and sinks.  By considering GHG emissions as the primary driver for building energy improvements, policy makers are overlooking the much more immediate and serious resource issues of peak oil and gas.  Since both of these peak events will be evident as early as 2010, all buildings should be built or retrofitted to a net zero energy and carbon standard NOW, not 22 years from now.

However, I digress.  Since it will take the actual emergency of these peaking events to mobilize the political will to enact a national zero energy standard, the question is what can we expect when Obama takes office next year.

The first likely step will be to start the process of improving building efficiency by 50% through our building codes.  A significant improvement is already in the works for the residential sector with the IECC 2009. However, at this time, the 30% improvement authored by the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, will only be a voluntary appendix to the next release of the code.  In addition, once the new code is released, it has to be reviewed and adopted by hundreds of city, county, and state authorities.  In the process, these authorities often dumb down new energy code provisions in response to local politics.  We can also expect a major push back from a decimated housing sector deeply concerned about adding any new code mandated building costs.

My best guess is that under Obama, the voluntary 30% improvement provision authored by Energy Efficient Codes Coalition will be supported by Obama’s Grant Program for Early Adopters policy proposal.  This proposal creates a competitive grant program for states and localities that “take the first steps in implementing new building codes that prioritize energy efficiency, and provides a federal match for those states with leading-edge public benefits funds that support energy efficiency retrofits of existing buildings.”

The grant proposal creates a policy that respects local politics and helps to support those areas of country that have the political will to move forward with improving building energy efficiency.

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State of the Union 2010

“[The President] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
The United States Constitution, Article II, Section 3

Members of Congress, madame Speaker, distinguished guests, my fellow Americans…as many who have come before me, I stand before you this evening to fulfill a constitutional obligation. The first State of the Union address was delivered in straight forward manner to a newly formed congress by George Washington on January 8th, 1790. However, some two century’s latter, this time honored tradition has in devolved into political theatre with standing ovations predictably limited to one side of the aisle and political points cynically won from guests planted in the gallery. The American people deserve better, so this evening I will depart from my prepared remarks and tell the people of America and of the world what they need to hear rather than what they either want or expect to hear. Many will not like what I have to say, but this union and the world stand at a cross roads and there is no better forum than this to address this critical moment in history.

When George Washington delivered the first address in 1790 the population of the world stood at approximately 1 billion and the population of our new fledgling country was less than 4 million. Our nation’s borders had yet to reach the Pacific and many parts of the earth, including our great western states were still unexplored. Mankind’s footprint on this world was still relatively small. At the beginning of our nation’s life, it was just and reasonable to limit the focus of this address to our new and fragile union. However, today we cannot understand the state of our union without first putting it in both its historical context and in the context of the state of our planet. To do otherwise, would be to put us in grave danger.

In contrast to the time of Washington’s address, the population of the earth today exceeds 6.6 billion and our country’s population stands at nearly 304 million. As a result of that growth, mankind’s footprint on this world has in many ways begun to exceed the limits of the earth’s carrying capacity. We see the effects of these limits manifested in record high natural gas and heating oil prices, $200/barrel oil, $10/gallon gasoline, climate change, a persistent and prolonged state of financial crisis, the ongoing military conflicts in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and in the continuing food shortages and riots in both our country and around the world. But these issues, as serious and troubling as them may seem, are merely symptoms, not the root cause of the problems we face today.

When America’s space program provided us with the first photos of our planet from the perspective of space, we were awed not only by the beauty of our planet, but by it’s lonely isolation. One small planet providing an island oasis for humanity in an infinite universe. We can easily grasp the limitations of an island, but we have naively thought of the earth as an infinite source of life nurturing resources. The truth however, is that every planet like every island has a limited supply of natural resources and our planet is no different. As the world’s population and economy has grown, our natural resources have been systematically exhausted to the point were we can no longer depend on their increasing supply to fuel our economic growth and standards of living. Our undeniable reality is that we will have to accept and adjust to the limits imposed by the closed system we call Earth.

The challenge these natural limits will impose on our nation and the world will exceed any that we have faced either as a nation or as a community of nations. Our state of the world is that we have outgrown and exceeded the capacity of the earth to sustain the current level of population at current levels of consumption. Every other problem we face today is but a symptom of this one undeniable fact. Our choice is simple, we can either chase after symptoms and descend into a death spiral of conflict over dwindling resources, or we can use what remains of the earth’s resources to create a sustainable world for thousands of future generations. As a community of nations, we will have one chance and one chance only to accomplish this transition and the time is now. This is our moment to fail or succeed. If we fail to use what remains of our fossil fuel and other resources to successfully make this transition, the consequences will be dire and the world will return to a pre-industrial existence capable of sustaining only a fraction of the world’s existing population. Time is not on our side and we have only two, perhaps three decades to complete the task. It is incumbent upon this union, and the people of this nation to lead the world in this transition.

Our union began with a simple declaration penned by Thomas Jefferson.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

Historically, as we pursued these simple Rights, we have much we can hold with pride and much we must hold with shame. As a country we have been both a shinning beacon of hope, opportunity, freedom, and prosperity; and we have also practiced slavery, committed genocide against our native populations, and covertly and overtly meddled in the affairs of other sovereign nations. We have won wars justly fought in the name of freedom and lost wars with murkier political and moral aims. Today we are no longer the the republic our founding fathers envisioned. We have become the most powerful nation in the history of the world….a virtual empire with over 800 foreign military posts and bases and a military budget exceeding the next 46 countries combined. If you add all of the money spent to maintain and support our worldwide empire by the DOD, the CIA, the Treasury, the FBI the State Department, Homeland Security, the Veterans Administration, and the interest we pay on past military expenditures, it amounts to well over $1-trillion per year and growing. This figure does even include the “supplemental” funds being spent on our current middle east conflicts. These expenditures are not sustainable, and the slow creeping growth of this overreaching empire has turned us into the world’s largest debtor nation and moved us far from the founding principles and ideals of our nation.

The economic success we experienced for the better part of the last century has given us the highest standard of consumption in the world, but by many measures, not the highest quality of life. For many of us, our pursuit of happiness has become a frantic, costly, and unsatisfying pursuit of the trivial and meaningless. In just a few decades we have managed to transform the strongest, most dynamic manufacturing economy in the world into a economy completely dependent on consumerism and debt. In a country with a negative savings rate, record high credit card debt, and declining home values, our consumer led economy is long past sustainable.

Yet it is from this point in our history that we must face our greatest challenge. If we continue to look at symptoms, our situation to many will seem hopeless and out of desperation and fear we will be tempted to blame others for our problems. Demagogues have and will call for pre-emptive military action against those that control what remains of the world’s rapidly depleting natural resources. But there can be no peace in the context of scarcity and no pursuit of happiness without peace. The root cause of our problems will not and cannot be solved by military action.

No other resource defines our current state than the world’s declining reserves of oil. Beginning with the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1865, our country rapidly became the world’s first oil economy and this cheap and abundant energy resource would be the fuel and engine of growth that enabled us to become the world’s greatest economic power. However, U.S. production of oil peaked in 1971 and the petroleum power center quickly moved to middle east. Today it is painfully evident that oil production has peaked world wide and at current rates of consumption and depletion only half of what the world uses today will be available in just two decades. We will face similar “peaks” and painful declines in the production of coal, natural gas, and even uranium in the not so distant future.

Transitioning to a post fossil fuel world will not be easy. It will require sacrifice, high levels of cooperation, leadership, and the personal effort of every citizen of both this nation and of our community of nations. The last time our nation and much of the world was called upon to truly join together for a common cause was during WWII. That generation met it’s challenge and now it is our turn. The stakes have never been higher and the future of humanity literally hangs in the balance.

There will be some that say that “the market” will naturally adjust to the decline in fossil fuel resources and that all we have to do is stand back and trust in the magic of free markets. There is an element of truth is that view and one could point to recent growth in the renewable energy segment as proof of the validity of that position. However, like it or not, government is an integral part of the “market” and decades worth of federal and state laws, tax codes, and zoning and building regulations have been erected in direct or indirect support of our fossil fuel dependent economy. These laws, codes, and regulations will have to be rapidly deconstructed and rewritten to support a new sustainable, steady state economy fueled by renewable energy sources.

I have referenced population size several times in this address, and now I must return to this difficult and sensitive topic. The topics of human life and family size in this country have always been sacred, however as a nation and as a community of nations, we must face the very real limits of our planet to sustain life. The earth has a limited carrying capacity and can only support a reasonable standard of living for a given population size, and this capacity has already been exceeded. The world’s population can now only grow at the expense of our collective living standards and at the risk of increased and severe suffering. The only rational and humane course of action, is to limit and then reverse population growth in both the U.S. and the world.

The political, economic, and technical challenges we are facing are unprecedented and nothing we have faced in the past has prepared us for this moment. For the first time in human history we cannot meet these challenges and expect to succeed merely as individuals, or political parties, or as religious groups, or as nation states or as blocks of nations. To meet this challenge at this time, the entire world of nations must all join together in order to succeed or risk the catastrophic collapse of civilization.

Over the coming days I will be outlining a broad range of programs to meet this challenge. There will be no time for the usual political posturing or distractions, or for the interference of vested interests. Reason and events tell us that we all share the same vested interest and that our very survival is at stake. The american people will expect Congress to act boldly and decisively. The world will be watching.

First, to free up the required capital and additional engineering and R&D talent required to make the transition, I am proposing that we begin to aggressively reduce the expenditures of our military empire. A reduction in our current defense budget by 50% would still leave us spending as much as the next 5 countries combined. We can no longer afford to have our military robbing us of the nation’s industrial capital and technical talent. We must and will create a new manufacturing economy in America based on renewable energy and other sustainable technologies.

This new economy will be powered by electricity derived from solar and wind for our peak power demands, and most importantly by geothermal energy for our base load demand. In order to meet the challenge of making the transition to a post fossil fuel economy, I am proposing a government funded and fast tracked “Manhattan Project” to replace all of our coal fired power plants with geothermal energy by the year 2030.

Since we can only meet our future energy needs by addressing both the demand and supply sides of the equation, we must aggressively revise our tax codes to provide both credits and write-offs for a much broader array of energy conservation technologies and products. For example, we currently provide no incentives for solar hot water heating and rather than leading the world, as we must and should, the U.S. ranks behind both Solvenia and Albania in the the application of this technology.

The challenge of transforming our food supply may be one of our greatest. Food in U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table and we are dangerously dependent on oil and natural gas which supply the feedstocks for the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on which our centralized and mechanized industrial food system depends. As evidenced by our growing food crisis, this system is rapidly becoming unsustainable and to help bridge the transition to a more localized food delivery system we will reinstitute the “victory garden” program of WWII and create millions of citizen farmers to secure our nations food supply.

Our residential, commercial, and industrial buildings consume 73% of our electricity and 20% of our natural gas. Easy and cheap energy has made building designer’s environmentally complacent and for the last 100 years we have relied on brute force heating and cooling solutions to prop up building designs totally inadequate for their environment. That practice must end and I am proposing that all new buildings in this country be designed to a zero energy standard and that tax incentives be put in place to help convert our existing building stock into some semblance of energy efficiency.

The pattern of our homes, cities, and transportation systems was created in a time of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. As oil and natural gas become increasingly scarce we will have to reshape our patterns and style of living. The new plug-in hybrids that are just appearing on the market will help to replace our use of liquid fuels for driving, but this new technology will soon cause us to exceed our electrical generation capacity. Our one car, one person pattern of commuting from isolated suburbs to work and shopping centers will have to be transformed. As a start, I am proposing that all knowledge workers be allowed the right to telecommute and to write off the the use of their home offices on their individual tax returns. We must also divert much of our unproductive defense budget and aggressively invest in light rail transportation systems and in our national rail system. In addition, our residential zoning laws will have to eased so that our pattern of suburban sprawl can naturally evolve new centers and nodes of commerce within walking and bicycling distance of our population.

However difficult, we must begin to face the limited carrying capacity of earth with regard to population. As a beginning, I am proposing that our tax codes be revised to support and reflect a stable and sustainable population, and that the tax credit for dependents be limited to one child. Out of fairness this new policy will not be retroactive nor apply to adopted children.

Lastly, we must change the way we keep score. One of the reasons we are in this mess is that classical economics assumes that natural resources like oil are infinite and makes no accounting of their depletion nor of the negative environmental effects of their use. We can no longer count the clean up of a super fund site as having the same positive impact to our gross national product as the building of a 747. To make matters worse, for decades our government has cooked the books to make things look considerably better than they appear. If we were held to the same accounting standards as our fortune 500 companies our annual deficits would actually be about ten times what is normally reported and we would have had to declare bankruptcy long ago. If we are to successfully transition to a sustainable way of life in the next 20 years then we must be able to accurately and reliably measure our progress and to that end I am proposing that we upgrade our national accounting practices to comply with a more realistic and accurate ecological economics standard.

The next two decades will be extremely disruptive and difficult and it is unlikely that any of us will emerge without great hardship and sacrifice. If there was ever a time for courage, for hard work, for faith, for strength of character, now is that time. I am counting on the people of this nation, on the people of the world, and on our community of nations to meet these challenges for the benefit of our children and grandchildren and for a thousand generations to come.

Thank you all and may God bless our nation and this planet.

This “address” is obviously a fiction and although much of what I say is factual even today, I doubt that any politician would have the courage the be this honest until things were well beyond the point of no return.

The market has begun to respond and it is not by accident that plug-in hybrids will begin to appear just as the general public is becoming aware of “peak oil”. The basic story line will run its course and we may just muddle through and make the transition in time to prevent a significant die-off of the world’s population. My guess is that it will be a messy transition with much political posturing, great suffering, and considerable military mischief.

Whether or not we do manage to muddle through, in the end, the world will no longer resemble the one we know today.

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How our Homes became the Equivalent of a Hummer

“In 1946, when the American post war housing boom started, the average house was 1100 square feet and housed 5 people. Fifty years latter, in 1996 the average house would grow to 2200 square feet and house 2.6 people and by 2007, fueled by easy credit, the average American home would would become the equivalent of a Hummer, “weighing in” at super-sized 2,400 square feet.”

In 1934, during the depths of the Depression, Congress passed the National Housing Act to strengthen a deeply troubled housing market. This act created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) which was amended in 1938 to create the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) – an entity designed to help mortgage lenders gain access to capital for mortgage loans. An important element of this legislation was to make mortgage funds available to more Americans by protecting lenders from the risk of default. In its earliest days, Fannie Mae nationalized the mortgage industry by creating the first mechanism in America for selling individual mortgages (backed the U.S. government) into a secondary market.

When the FHA and Fannie Mae were created, the housing industry was flat on its back:

  • Two million construction workers had lost their jobs.
  • Housing finance was a fragmented, inefficient and illiquid. Mortgage rates varied considerably from region to region. In some economically distressed regions there were simply no funds available.
  • Terms were very difficult to meet for homebuyers seeking mortgages.
  • Lending institutions would issue a mortgage, collect payments, and file the mortgage away until the principal was paid off. A lack of available, consistently priced capital put a hard ceiling on the number of new mortgages that could be issued.
  • Mortgage loan terms were limited to 50 percent of the property’s market value. Borrower’s were faced with a 50% down payment and a repayment schedule spread over three to five years and ending with a large balloon payment.
  • America was primarily a nation of renters. Only four in 10 households owned homes.
  • Homes were NOT considered as investments and refi’s and equity withdrawals were extremely rare.

In the 1940’s after WWII, the FHA and the GI Bill helped finance millions of homes for returning veterans and their families. This post war period would mark the peak of American economic dominance. We were still the world’s major oil producer AND exporter and due to the devastation of the European manufacturing base, we dominated the world in virtually every industrial and manufacturing sector.

Fueled by cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy, this period would also mark the beginning of an American landscape built around the automobile and the “American (suburban) Dream”. These were “heady” times and the freedom of movement afforded by the automobile combined with affordable housing for millions of returning GI’s would prove seductive. We would build cars and homes as if the gasoline, natural gas, fuel oil, and electricity that made driving and comfortable home dwelling possible would be cheap and abundant forever. The big lumbering gas guzzling V8’s of the forties and fifties would be driven home to the energy guzzling, thinly insulated, drafty homes of a new suburbia. The cars would last about 5 five years. The homes however would last an average of 75 years.

In 1946, when the American post war housing boom started, the average house was 1100 square feet and housed 5 people. Fifty years latter, in 1996 the average house would grow to 2200 square feet and house 2.6 people and by 2007, fueled by easy credit, the average American home would would become the equivalent of a Hummer, “weighing in” at super-sized 2,400 square feet. The peaking of U.S. oil production in 1971, the formation of OPEC in 1973 and the associated energy crisis’ of the 1970’s would force much needed improvements in our building codes. However, today’s homes are still grossly under-insulated and 1/3 of their energy losses are still the result of air leaks through poorly constructed exterior walls! Our home energy standards are possibly worse than our car and truck CAFE standards (federal mileage requirements). Look underneath the hood of our homes and you’ll 500 HP, super charged forced air furnaces lumbering away in our basements and holding the cold at bay with the brute force of natural gas and oil. We are still behaving as if cheap energy sources are forever.

Adding to the problem is the current culture of “homes as investments” and average ownership cycles of only 5 years. We are a culture with a myopic time horizon where granite countertops, super-sized floorplans, and home-equity financed SUV’s trump energy efficiency and solar hot water systems. This “housing bubble” culture may soon be going the way of the dinosaur with the fall of the sub-prime loan market, the collapse of Wall Street’s sleazy and toxic secondary market for home mortgages, and the first serious decline in home values since the great depression. However, the final death blow will come with the peaking of fossil fuel production, fuel shortages, blackouts, and the obvious and urgent need to transform our housing stock into some semblance of energy efficiency.

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The Road to Energy Zero Homes – Metrics

“All healing is essentially the release from fear.”- A Course in Miracles

If you’ve been my reading previous posts you know that I believe that “sustainable” in the context of “home”, can only mean “net zero” or “energy zero” construction. What that means in practical terms, is that the thermodynamics of the building design (insulation levels, window performance, tightness, solar gain, etc.) must be good enough to allow the reasonable application renewable resources like solar or wind power to render the building a net zero energy consumer. By net zero, I mean that the home may have PV system that uses the grid as a storage device and although it may draw power from grid at times, on average the home delivers at least as much power to grid as it consumes.

The HERS Index is a good metric to help quantify the design performance required to meet this standard. I my opinion, the design of the home prior to the application of renewables, to be “good enough”, must have a HERS Index score of 25 or better to be “net zero ready”.

HERS Index

Unfortunately of the million or so homes built every year, my guess is that less than a thousand (perhaps less than 100) meet this standard. These are the hardy souls that build Earth Ships or are determined enough to find the few professionals who know how it’s done, regardless of the climate or any bias toward a specific building system. But in the long run it’s not the new homes that will be the challenge, it’s the over 100 million existing homes that grace the HERS Index scale from 130 to 150+. Some of these will of course be lost causes, economically not worth the effort, however the vast majority can be reasonably retrofitted, if not to 25 threshold, at least to below 50.

Stay tuned, I’ll be writing a series of “Zero Energy Home” posts that will cover the thermodynamic basics and strategies for retrofitting our existing housing stock.

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Energy, Carrying Capacity, and Sustainable Building

“By their own follies they perished, the fools.” – Homer, The Odyssey

The growth of civilization has been intimately linked to our ability to harness energy since man’s discovery of fire. Our reliance on biomass (wood) and eventually, the wind and hydro power of mills would limit our growth until the use of coal and the invention of the steam engine would launch the industrial revolution. However, it was the discovery of energy dense, crude oil in 1859 that would catapult us into a whole new age of growth, mobility, and abundance.

What is “sustainable” is based on carrying capacity, and every human advance in the use and amount of available energy would serve to increase both the population and economic carrying capacity of the earth. The shear abundance of cheap oil over the last 150 years would change the face of architecture and our built environment. Architects and building designers no longer had to consider local climate conditions, they could let their imaginations and ego’s run wild (or lazy) and rely on brute force heating and cooling to save the day. Architects like Phillip Johnson would build their design fame and fortune with glass homes in Connecticut and glass skyscrapers in Houston. Buildings that reply for their very existence on cheap and abundant energy.

Phillip Johnson Glass House

Phillip Johnson – Glass House Connecticut

Phillip Johnson Houston Skyscraper

Phillip Johnson – Houston Skyscraper

Mass housing in the U.S. would follow a similar path. Not only would the buildings themselves be inefficient statements of style over substance and function, but the sprawling pattern of development based on cheap oil and the automobile, would create a formula for maximum energy consumption.

The OPEC engineered “oil shock” of the 1970’s would bring about some much needed building energy standards, but vested interests continue to play the “politics of energy codes” and keep us far from anything remotely sustainable. The recent Green movement is a positive step, but new standards such as Energy Star and LEED for Homes do nothing more than tweak the status quo in the direction of sustainability.

If we assume cheap and abundant energy will be with us forever, then the critical constraints to the carrying capacity of our current way of living and building are environmental degradation, water, and global warming. Observing the behavior of many our politicians and policy makers this would seem to be case. Unfortunately, because these issues are hard to economically quantify and the consequences can be conveniently be passed on to future generations, actions tend to come in tepid half measures like raising the CAFE standards to 35 miles/gallon over several years.

But what if cheap and abundant energy will NOT be with us forever? What if the critical constraint to the carrying capacity of our current way of living and building where the peaking and eventual depletion of fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal? What if this constraint was not off in some nebulous, non-renewable resource future, but was now or very close to now? What if this where the eleventh hour? How would this change the way we build?

Based on data published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) the worldwide production of conventional crude oil peaked in May of 2005 and is currently in an undulating plateau. If we add unconventional sources (deep water, oil sands, etc.) worldwide production peaked in February of 2006 and is also stuck in an undulating plateau. Matthew Simmons, advisor to the Bush administration, author of “Twilight in the Desert”, and investment banker to the energy sector, says that “Serious peak oil analysts all agree that peak oil is 0 to 10 years away.“

ASPO Peak Oil Projection

The U.S. production of conventional easy-to-get natural gas peaked in the early 70’s and we have only just been able to keep our supply versus demand heads above water with imports from Canada and Mexico and the aggressive exploration of unconventional, hard to get sources like shale and coal methane gas.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that we will be facing a supply crunch sometime in 2010. Big oil executives, speaking in “peak oil code”, are now stating publicly that the “era of cheap oil in over”. There have been more than a half dozen Peak Oil related documentaries released since 2003 and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour documentary debuts this month.

Peak oil changes everything. It is a hard limit to carrying capacity to both population and economic growth. As consumption and depletion widens the gap between supply and demand, we will become supply constrained and as supply declines economic growth must follow. Building design will be climate driven and zero energy buildings will soon become a matter of necessity, not choice. Not in some nebulous green future, but by the end of this decade. This is the eleventh hour.

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