For a Clean Energy Future, is Passive the New Green?

By Amy Kochanowsky, staff editor

This week, New York Times writer Tom Zeller Jr. called our attention to the promise of passive housing, which can reduce home energy usage by 90 percent compared to traditional housing. According to the Passive House Institute, a passive home is a “well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc.” With passive construction, nature is a home’s furnace.

In today’s frenzy of new technologies and certifications, passive solar may have an advantage. Although construction costs are more expensive, once the home is built, there’s nothing to tinker with, measure, or install. It’s uncomplicated and requires little effort – something we Americans can get on board with. This concept is a promising solution to help address climate change.

Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of energy usage in the U.S., and energy production is associated with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The widely-discussed McKinsey GHG abatement cost curve shows that many options to reduce GHG emissions with a negative cost (i.e., over time, people will save in energy costs if they implement these solutions) are targeted at making residential and commercial buildings more efficient. Building efficiencies and retrofits seem to be the low hanging fruit in terms of actions that most effectively reduce emissions.

A handful of federal and state programs encourage building retrofits. Further, if building efficiencies are cost effective, as the McKinsey report suggests, and they reduce GHG emissions, why isn’t everyone interested in them? Why aren’t more businesses, governments, and households doing the right thing for the planet if it’s good for their wallets too? Better yet, why do Americans have such difficulty making rational decisions like these?

Additionally, Al Gore’s rational, scientific plea in An Inconvenient Truth didn’t mobilize us. In light of these observations, perhaps our best solution is to make an emotional, non-rational appeal to convince government and citizens to make rational decisions. If we can waken people from their business-as-usual slumber and appeal to their emotional sides, then we have a chance to persuade them to do what makes financial sense over the long term.

The next question is, how do we do this? Let’s shift the debate away from polar bears and the ominous rise in sea level and toward a more human aspect. In a rational sense, it is more difficult to connect climate change to public health, children’s safety and welfare, and the threat of sending U.S. jobs overseas than it is to connect climate change to science; however, we must make these less obvious connections to show ordinary Americans how an environmental tragedy can affect them on a personal level.

With barely a dozen certified passive houses in the U.S., I hope to see interest grow and technological capacity expand. If we can convince people to make some initial investments in energy-efficient processes, concepts such as passive homes can build momentum and help create a more sustainable future.

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