Looking into the Future

May 06, 2009
May/June 2009
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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How are we going to get there from here?

One of the liabilities of growing older is the loss of perpetual optimism: You never see Pollyanna depicted with gray hair. When I was asked to contribute something “grand and wide sweeping” for this special issue, I tried to gracefully refuse. I am not the visionary type. What I can contribute is more of a rant, in keeping with my curmudgeonly sensibilities.

Energy will always be available. In the future, though, the energy choices are likely to be far more expensive than what we have even now.

DON FUGLER works for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the federal agency responsible for housing. He was trained as a mechanical engineer. He manages projects for CMHC in areas such as indoor air quality, ventilation, energy efficiency, moisture, attics, and contaminated soils. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CMHC.
We can make big strides in reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The impediments are financial and political, rather than technical.
We can make big strides in reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The impediments are financial and political, rather than technical. To a great degree, we can make old houses operate far more efficiently, but we need the societal will to make this a priority. If and when we do decide to take on the task of reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas, here are the obvious implications:
  1. NEW HOUSES will be smaller, spaced closer together, and nearer to transit in urban areas. Look to net zero, Passivhaus, and (in Canada) EQuilibrium houses for examples of envelope options and efficient HVAC systems. Multifamily residential has always had the potential for more efficient operation and centralized energy generation and distribution systems. Efficient multifamily buildings can be built, although they are not yet common in North America.
  2. OLDER HOUSING stock can and should be retrofitted for major energy reductions. Depending upon the age of the house, these retrofits may cost in the order of $25,000–$100,000, and even more for architecturally significant buildings. Pushing homeowners into making changes on that scale will require significant intervention and support from various levels of government.
  3. RETROFITTING North American stock will require a good, trained workforce, and supervisory staff or inspectors with a strong knowledge of construction and building science. This will require high growth for both of these groups to fill the demand.
  4. HOUSING RETROFITS should cause measurable reductions. The best retrofits, when combined with electricity generation, will approach net zero or result in utility bills that are largely administrative fees. Good retrofits will see significantly reduced gas, oil, and electrical bills. A commodity price increase that matches a consumption decrease would be a disincentive.
  5. PEOPLE should be driving less or driving vehicles with exceptional gas consumption. These vehicles should be at least twice as efficient as common vehicles today. Increasing vehicle occupancy would help, too.
  6. AIR TRAVEL should be down to the point where there are far fewer scheduled flights than we currently have.
  7. CONSUMER purchases should be down to the point where big-box outlets go out of business.
  8. MORE FOOD should be grown locally. Regional farmers’ markets should provide most consumer purchases of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
All of these factors will significantly reduce North American energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. There are three other scenarios that would buy us some time. If a major climatic or geologic disaster, or a new pandemic, wipes out a third of the earth’s population, we will have time in the wreckage to regroup. If solar activity or the earth’s axial tilt changes appreciably and moves us toward a new ice age, we can probably stop worrying about warming. Or if the miraculous solar film gets invented, giving us near-unlimited cheap power for houses and cars, then we can reconsider. In the absence of any of these extraordinary scenarios, we will have to start doing the right thing to reduce our greenhouse gases and our consumption of dwindling energy supplies. It will only take effort, knowledge, determination, and good leadership. 
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