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The peak oil crisis: energy & building

When worldwide oil depletion sets in, initial concern will be with transportation. First attention will be fixated on the “unbelievable” gas prices, then, what to do with the SUVs, miles per gallon, public transit, bicycles, telecommuting, and anything else having to do with getting ourselves and our stuff around.

In time however, it will dawn on us that cheap oil played a bigger role in our daily lives than just propelling cars. It won’t be long before other concerns arise such as growing, raising, transporting, and preparing food, and keeping our buildings habitable. I would like to talk about buildings in an era without cheap oil, without cheap natural gas, and without cheap electricity.

Keep in mind that in North America , we spend 90 percent of our time inside some building or other, where the temperature, moisture, and even the oxygen content of the air we breath are all kept at acceptable levels by – you guessed it – cheap energy. Take away the energy and, under some circumstances, a cave, tent, or even sitting under a big tree might be preferable to being indoors.

Now buildings have been around for quite some time and have served civilization well without much more than firewood, candles, coal and a touch of whale oil to keep them habitable. In the last century however, and particularly during the last 50 years, cheap, abundant energy has brought major changes to our buildings. They have become taller, bigger, brighter and most have one thing in common: they now require massive amounts of energy to keep functioning— particularly here in North America , the epicenter of energy consumption. Take away or markedly reduce the availability of energy and our relationship with our buildings becomes a big problem.

In the good old days of five or six years ago, utility costs ran about 20 percent of the cost of operating an office building depending, of course, on a large number of variable factors. When the costs of oil, natural gas and electricity begin their inevitable several fold or more increase, the choice will quickly become: get along with a lot less energy or abandon the structure. This applies to tall, fully “conditioned” office buildings, retail and manufacturing establishments, and homes.

The energy crises of the 1970s led to a lot of thinking and research on how to construct buildings that use little or no energy. Some have been built that are “super-insulated,” nearly air-tight, structures carefully controling their exhaust and air intake flows. Where suitable, you can add some solar power or perhaps a wind generator and have a very livable building using little or no outside energy. While this would be great for a post peak oil world, there is a problem. Outside of a handful demonstration projects, we have built only a few such buildings. To replace a significant portion of the world’s existing building inventory with ultra efficient models will take many decades if not centuries. There may not be enough energy left to accomplish this task.

The heart of the problem is that 99+ percent of the tens of millions of buildings in which we spend so much time are energy guzzlers and unless we can find some way to massively reduce their consumption of energy, large swaths of post peak oil civilization could quickly become very unpleasant places.

The first steps on the path to sustainable buildings are relatively simple and inexpensive, turn down the heat, turn up the air-conditioning and turn off the lights. Wide-spread air conditioning is only 40 or 50 years old and central heating not much more than 100. For most of us, the relentless rise in heating and electric bills should be sufficient incentive to make do with less heat, cool air, and light. The first steps towards conservation will cost nothing and can be accomplished instantly. It may take a little temporary discomfort before we become used to temperatures five, ten, or more degrees above or below what we are currently accustomed.

The next relatively inexpensive step we will need to take is getting rid of the excessive lighting in our buildings, especially the incandescent kind. I suspect increasing electricity prices will be enough to make this happen, but somewhere along the line Congress might see the light, and start phasing out sales of the incandescent bulb and perhaps even mandate some lighting standards more suitable for the times.

After adjusting the thermostat and unscrewing or replacing outmoded light bulbs, our journey to as-close-to-zero-energy buildings as we can get becomes more complicated— and a lot more expensive. If money is no object, or your building is close to a good source of sun, wind, or wood, simply tear down and replace or modify the building into a structure that can sustain itself.

While, for most of us, total replacement of an existing building is not an option, it is almost certain rising heating, cooling, ventilating, and electricity costs eventually will force most of us into taking costly measures to conserve building energy.

There are dozens of ways to reduce the amount of energy required to keep an existing building habitable. Weatherization (plugging cracks), more and still more insulation, triple-glazed windows, and efficient heating/cooling units are among the more prominent options. The major issues in all this will be: 1. choosing wisely among the many options so we can get the most energy savings per dollar of building upgrade and 2. where to start.

While “upgrade wisely” is a technical issue to be decided through engineering analysis, the “who gets upgraded first” is a political/economic issue. The issue starts with climatic conditions and how much energy is needed to keep people alive and then, alive in relative comfort. In southern Florida, the climate requires 500 or less degree (C)-days a year to keep people warm while in northern Alaska the number is over 10,000 degree days. If rationing of building energy and upgrade resources takes place only by price, you will have situations where all the available insulation is going to reduce rich-guys’ air conditioning bills in Key West, while pensioners in Maine are freezing to death. They simply cannot afford the energy to stay alive or the resources to reduce their need for heating energy.

An important factor in all this will be how fast the energy-for-buildings crisis comes upon us. An abrupt disruption of energy supplies either by a geopolitical event or an act of Mother Nature, coupled to an unusually cold winter, could quickly lead to crisis level fuel shortages. A similar, but probably less serious event, could come in the middle of a summer heat wave.

The message is clear, the vast amounts of energy being used to support our buildings in the style to which we have become accustomed simply will not be available much longer. In a few years, solutions, or at least attempts to find solutions, to this problem will start making their way to the top of many political agendas.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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