Passive House Movement Gains Traction in the U.S.

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Imagine paying less than $15 a month for electricity and gas. Imagine living in a home without air conditioning or heating vents. If the price sounds right, but the house itself sounds either drafty or stifling, think again.

If you were living in a passive house, you wouldn’t have traditional heating and cooling equipment, but you’d still be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And your home would use the energy equivalent of a 100-wall light bulb.

You would be living in what’s called a “passive house,” just like Cathy O’Neill who is the proud owner of California’s first certified Passive House in the Sonoma wine country.

What’s a passive house? Much more common in Europe than the U.S., a passive house is an extremely well insulated, virtually airtight building heated primarily by passive solar energy and the energy generated by its occupants and electrical equipment, etc.

O’Neill’s house uses a small heat exchanger which heats or cools depending on the desired temperature. The house also contains state-of-the-art insulation, triple-pane windows, a solar water heater, and energy-efficient European appliances.

O’Neill’s house uses a small heat exchanger which heats or cools depending on the desired temperature. The house also contains state-of-the-art insulation, triple-pane windows, a solar water heater, and energy-efficient European appliances.

In an article in the New York Times, it was estimated that there were approximately 25,000 certified passive structures, including schools and commercial buildings as well as homes in Europe, but only 13 in the U.S. as of last September.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, O’Neill decided to retrofit an existing home into a passive house because she wanted to use less of the world’s resources and to lower her carbon footprint. And, the Passive House Institute-U.S. estimates that the passive house concept should reduce heating energy consumption of homes by 90 percent. Currently, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, buildings are responsible for almost 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions annually, and nearly 80 percent of all electricity generated by U.S. power plants goes to supply the building sector.

While the U.S. is developing “green” building certifications and rating systems such as the federal government’s Energy Star for Homes Programs and the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system from the U.S. Green Building Council, these programs aim for energy efficiency of about 15 percent over conventional construction.

Passive homes using photovoltaic solar panels or other energy harvesting systems could well become zero-energy-use houses, according to the Passive House Institute-U.S. The passive-house movement’s sanctioning body is the Passivhaus Institute based in Dramstadt, Germany. The Passive House Institute-U.S. has educated roughly 160 architects, builders, and engineers through a series of training programs.

One of the problems facing U.S. builders of passive homes is the costs associated with their construction. In Europe, according to the Passive House Institute-U.S., the additional cost for a passive house as compared to a conventional home is now less than five percent. In the U.S., thicker walls, specially constructed windows, and other materials make building a passive house much more expensive. O’Neill’s renovation cost well over $1 million. (http://www.clam-ptreyes.org/Light-PassiveHouse.pdf )

Not far from O’Neill’s house in Sonoma, the non-profit Community Land Trust Association of West Marin recently completed a $200,000, 750-sqare-foot, one-bedroom passive home for low-income occupants in Point Reyes Station, and the San Francisco Zen Center broke ground in September on a passive house dorm for its staff members at its Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach.

Article by Julie Mitchell, appearing courtesy Celsias.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

5 Comments

  1. In the late 1970’s there was a well developed passive solar home movement that produced many low tech, inexpensive and comfortable homes. I built one in New Mexico that incorporated passive solar gain, thermal mass and a high efficiency wood stove to produce a house that required no electric or gas heat and used less than a pickup truck load of firewood to keep us comfortable during winters that routinely had 10 degree night time temps and were often below zero. There was nothing high tech about the home – it was 2000 square feet of traditional adobe construction with a greenhouse attached to the south side adobe walls and thermo pane windows but no super insulation or other unique technology. With the proper solar overhang to keep the summer sun out and the doors open breezes circulated to keep us comfortable in the summer with no A/C. The greenhouse provided tomatoes year round and could have produced more if we had wanted. At the time there were many demonstration projects in NM building low income sustainable houses with tech support from Los Alamos National Laboratory who built several passive solar designs that incorporated sophisticated measurements to determine the relative merits of several designs. I have been frustrated at the lack of effort to develop/incorporate passive features in home design for the last 30 or 40 years. I see “energy efficient” houses on home shows that rely on very expensive technology to achieve the same results that could be achieved by intelligent design and low tech innovation. Where are the gov’t or university sponsored demonstration projects that could spur low tech and affordable innovation similiar to what was happening in the late 70’s in response to that energy crises?

  2. A intermediate form of passive house is an alternative if the cost of renovation is too high and you want to install a heating system based on renewable energy only. Combination of solar panel and Xsorb energy store together with proper insulation of your house (double-pane windows, no draft) brings you a comfortably heated house without the energy cost nor the dependency on the local energy supplier.

  3. It’s frustrating to hear that the cost of passive houses are too dear.

    The simple fact of the matter is that builders are not equipped with the skills to build passive houses. This translates into a standard it will cost more excuse.

    The funny thing is that with a little bit of training, the better house builders are perfectly capable of building to passive standards.

    The passive house concept is the start of measuring energy efficiency in houses in a meaningful way.

    It will require house builders to not only build better but to understand the design principles.

    It will also ensure that short cuts are a thing of the past.

    Air tightness and thermal imaging will flush out any flaws in the build or design process.

    The more expensive the fuel bills become the more passive houses will become the norm.

  4. Generating Energy Storage & A Combination Renewable Energy System

    “It is cheaper to save energy than make energy”

    Any renewable energy system that is installed should have extra capacity and be able to convert water into hydrogen which will be used to power a hydrogen generator as a back-up power source.

    We should install a renewable energy system that utilizes solar & wind, when possible add geothermal to the mix.

    A design is needed for a renewable energy system that can generate electricity and heat water with a step down mixer allowing the system to provide water hot enough for radiant heating and at the same time utilize a step down mixing valve to reduce the water temperature to be able its use for hot water in normal consumption.

    A thermal renewable energy system may be able to provide both.

    Prior to sizing up a renewable energy system, an energy audit should be conducted and energy efficiency recommendations should be implemented, that includes changing habits in utilizing energy and utilities in general.

    Habitual changes can save between 20 to 50% of energy & utility consumption.

    When people are considerate not to waste, they save resources and money.

    PS. Tankless water heaters & Rainwater harvesting conserves our water supply.

    YJ Draiman, Energy/Utility Analyst

    http://www.renewableenergy2.com

    Electric cars are they conserving energy? Rev2

    Note: Electricity is a secondary form of energy derived by utilizing another form of energy to produce electric current.

    Let us look at the facts:

    In order to produce electricity, we need some form of energy to generate electricity, whereby you lose a substantial amount of your original source of energy.

    In the process we are losing the efficiency of the initial energy source, since it is not a direct use of the energy.

    Let us take it a step further. To generate electricity we utilize; coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro electric – water, photovoltaic-solar, wind, geothermal, etc. Many electricity generating plants utilize fossil fuel, which creates pollution.

    How much of the initial source of energy do you lose to get the electricity you need for your electric automobile; you also lose electricity in the transmission lines.

    Why are we jumping to a new technology, without analyzing the economic cost, the effective return and efficiency of such technology; while computing and measuring its affect on the environment?

    Natural gas vehicles are a direct source of energy, where you get the most for your energy source – in efficiency and monetary value.

    In these hard economic times – I would think, you would want to get the most for your dollar – and not waste resources.

    Another economic impact would be the loss of road tax on fuel, these funds are used to build and maintain the highway infrastructure.

    “It is Cheaper to Save Energy than Make Energy”

    YJ Draiman, Director of Utilities & Sustainability

    http://www.energysavers2.com

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