Towards a Greener Future

I attended a conference “Making Green Economy Real” organized by The Boston Pledge at Bentley University outside of Boston. After opening remarks by Partha Ghosh, founder of The Boston Pledge, that provided some great insights into the challenges facing the economy, Prof. Bill Moomaw, one of the authors of the IPCC report that shared in the Nobel Peace Prize with VP Gore, provided a terrific overview of what was needed for the US to really go green. 

Recently returned from Washington, Prof. Moomaw had accompanied the Tufts team that entered the biannual Solar Decathalon sponsored by the Department of Energy.  The Decathalon is a challenge to design, build and operate a house that is completely powered by solar energy on site at the Washington Mall. Twenty teams from all around the USA, Puerto Rico, Spain and Germany participated. The winner for the second time in a row was Germany. But more important were Moomaw’s observations about the state of the art in solar and energy efficiency as represented by the various entries.

Some of his observations:

  • Almost all the houses, US and foreign, had some significant components made in Germany.
  • Neither of the foreign houses, Spain and Germany, had any US components.
  • The DOE provided $100K to each team selected, including the foreign ones.
  • Spain provided 1 Million Euros to the Spanish team to help them work on the design.
  • Not one of the US solar manufacturers donated anything to the US teams.

The German entry was completely sheathed in Solar panels, had designed a proprietary vacuum insulated wall system and generated 200% of the energy it consumed.

Prof. Moomaw described this as just one of the symptoms of how far behind the US is from the rest of the world in focusing on energy efficiency. In his opinion, the US is 25 years behind Europe. For example in 1989 Germany had no significant power from renewable energy sources while most of the world’s renewable energy generation was happening in the USA. In 2005, Germany generated 8.5% of its energy through renewable sources and Denmark had over 20%. European governments encouraged efficiency through policy and kept toughening standards every few years. The US on the other hand blocks sunrise industries, like solar, while protecting sunset ones without incentivizing them to change or improve. For example, European refrigerators are much more efficient than ones made in the US but are blocked from being imported into the country through legislation to protect local industry.

China has also made a concerted effort to leapfrog the world in renewable energy. It is the largest producer of solar panels. From having virtually no wind projects in 2001, China will overtake the US in installed wind capacity. It has been doubling wind capacity every year. By 2011, China is expected to produce more than 500,000 electric and hybrid cars versus less than half in the US.

In 2004, Moomaw decided to apply the energy efficiency principles to building his own house. Working with an architect, he designed a completely energy self sufficient house. However in building the house, it pointed to additional deficiencies in US industry. To reach his goals of self sufficiency, all his appliances were European, usually German. His doors were Canadian to provide the insulation. He installed a heat recovery regenerator to reuse some of the exhaust heat – again Canadian.

Moomaw said that we need to make significant changes in our use if we are to prevent runaway climate change by 2050. He estimated that we need to reduce energy use by 4% per year to meet this goal. While a daunting target, Moomaw pointed out that there was historical precedent that said it was feasible.

He pointed out that in 1905 only 3 % of US houses had electricity, yet 50 years later electricity was available virtually all across the US. In 1905, years before the Model T, Ford was making just 14 cars a day. Fifty years later, America had evolved to the commuting suburban model of urban development.

Similarly in 2005, only 35 of energy is being generated from renewable, non-hydro sources and less than 1% of the vehicles are hybrid or electric. He said there is still hope that with a commitment to change, the future could be significantly better.

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