Thursday, August 24, 2006

Planet Wedgies by Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP


An article in Scientific American, (September 2006, http://www.sciam.com/) presents “A Plan to Keep Carbon in Check.” Written by two Princeton professors, the article looks at all the ways to solve the climate problem of excessive carbon dioxide buildup for the next fifty years, using current technologies. This may seem like an extremely conservative viewpoint, but if we look back fifty years, we will find that we are still producing electricity and fueling our factories, cars, offices and homes with the same fuels: oil, gas and coal. After a brief “blip” of nuclear power, the U.S. turned away from it, with the result that no new nuclear plants have been started since 1974, more or less.

The professors, Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, published their initial findings in the peer reviewed Science magazine two years ago. What they do is contrast two futures, the first based on a “do-nothing” premise, i.e., continuing with carbon emissions at much the same rate as the past thirty years. The result is 14 billion tons per year of carbon emissions by 2056, which would triple “pre-industrial” levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with almost certain significant climate changes.

In the second, more positive future, emissions are frozen for fifty years at today’s level of 7 billion tons of annual carbon inputs, then reduced by half for the next fifty years, holding total carbon dioxide concentrations at only double the pre-industrial level, less than fifty percent above today’s atmospheric concentrations.

Socolow and Pacala identify two long-term trends that may help accomplish part of this goal: a transition from manufacturing to service economies all over the world, and the “substitution of cleverness for energy,” for example, the development of more energy-efficient appliances and aircraft engines.

To look at solutions, the two professors developed the notion of “stabilization wedges” (hence the title of this article) that would each avert one billion tons of carbon emissions per year fifty years from now, starting at zero today. This would move the annual carbon emissions from 14 billion tons back to 7 billion.

How does all this relate to green buildings? The authors lay out fifteen potential ways to get seven stabilization wedges, which would each yield 25 billion tons of total emission reductions over the next fifty years. This is “sustainability thinking” on a grand scale. One of these wedges requires cutting electricity use in homes, offices and stores by 25 percent. Think of it: cutting 50 percent of energy use in homes, offices and stores over the next fifty years would itself contribute nearly 30 percent (two of the seven wedges) of the emission reductions needed to avoid drastic climate change. This is a grand challenge for designers, builders, developers and government agencies.

And guess what? It’s not that hard to cut energy use in existing buildings by 25 percent over that time frame, and a piece of cake to cut electricity use in new buildings by 50 percent over the same time frame. In fact, the AIA-supported “Architecture 2030” protocol (http://www.architecture2030.org/) calls for cutting new building energy use by 60 percent by 2010, just four years from now. Add to that major ramp-ups of wind and solar use in buildings and you’ve got another wedge, or nearly half the problem solved.

So, here’s a challenge for designers, contractors, equipment makers, planners, lenders, investors, clients and everyone involved in the building industry. Look at your next project: if it’s not cutting electricity use by at least 25 percent in an existing building, go back and redesign it. If it’s not cutting electricity use by at least 50 percent in a new building, consider whether your firm will be competitive in five years. Can you design and construct high-performance buildings on a conventional building budget? If not, figure out how to do it.

The 21st century is shaping up to be a “design century.” We should all be encouraging fresh approaches to building and community design that reduce energy use while maintaining high levels of environmental quality and design excellence. In the long run, i.e., the fifty-year level, the greatest challenge is to the education community. If the current ways of teaching architecture, engineering and building are not yielding the planet-friendly results we all need, isn’t it time to “re-design” the entire curriculum to turn out designers with a planetary conscience and the skills to implement one, two or more wedgies?

Jerry Yudelson is Senior Editor of http://www.igreenbuild.com/. He can be reached by email to jerry@igreenbuild.com and via his consulting firm, Greenway Consulting Group, LLC, http://www.gogreenway.net/.

6 comments:

  1. Great title Jerry. I look forward to this blog "growing."

    If you had to guess how many new LEED projects will be launched in 2007?

    Edsar

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