Are Buildings Our Next Clean Energy Solution?

Transformative building design can bring climate hope.

Returning from Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training, it’s clear to me that if we hope to avert catastrophic climate change we need to start viewing our buildings as clean energy power plants. It might be easier than you think.

Gore and the global experts he convened for the training emphasized three things: 1. we face a climate crisis emergency; 2. we have the means to solve the crisis; and 3. our future depends on determined local climate action, now.

With reversals in US climate policy underway and the Paris climate agreement in question, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the clean energy transition is already underway.

Because clean energy is technology, not fuel, innovation drives costs down. More demand for clean energy means more deployment of clean energy, which leads to more experience and learning – further driving costs down. This is fundamentally different from fossil fuel extraction. Each ton of coal is harder to reach than the last and drives costs up.

The clean energy sector has stunned energy analysts, with faster-than-predicted uptake and cost declines. The levelized cost of solar energy decreased by a staggering 85% over the last seven years. (Lazard) Wind energy costs went down by 66% over the same period. Lithium ion batteries dropped by 80% over the past six years. (McKinsey & Company)

The boom in renewable energy is reaching an inflection point. Non-fossil energy made up 51% of net new supply of energy in 2015 globally. Some analysts expect 100% of net new energy supply to be non-fossil fuel by 2020. “Peak fossil fuels” may be right around the corner.

That’s good news for the planet. But without a revolution in the energy consumption of our buildings, it is not enough. The building sector is the biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. today. That’s a problem. But buildings can become part of the solution as a source of energy, and I’m not just talking about rooftop solar panels.

NK Architects–Pax Futura will be Seattle's first Passive House apartment units.

The “negawatts” we can “generate” through ultra-energy efficiency in buildings is an under-tapped energy resource. Those negawatts are especially valuable to the grid because their “production” naturally peaks during times of high demand, displacing carbon-intensive coal or gas “peaker plants.”

Buildings can be a form of climate action. When we make our built environment more energy efficient, we destroy demand for fossil fuels, and price goes down. This makes the more difficult-to-extract fossil fuels too expensive to dig up for the low market price, stranding them in the ground. The more energy efficient our buildings, the more fossil fuels are left stranded in the ground. Combine this with a transition to renewable energy, storage, and demand response and you’ve got the recipe for meaningful climate action.

If our purpose in sustainable design is to help save the planet, then we need to focus on meaningful carbon-reducing building solutions that are scalable. We do that by making our buildings so high-performing and cost-effective that the approach becomes the no-brainer choice for building owners, developers, and project teams. Passive House makes this possible.

The genius of Passive House design is that it recognizes the building itself – its skeleton and skin – as a technology. Passive House innovation therefore improves both performance and cost, a la other clean energy technologies. Powered by modern building science, energy modeling, and an advanced analysis of the thermal properties of building structures, Passive House architecture sits squarely in the realm of information technology and science-based innovation. That is a potential game changer for buildings’ role in the clean energy transition.

Many Passive House projects today are approaching cost parity with conventional construction. When a significantly better product becomes available for little or no extra expense, then mass adoption becomes possible. When Passive House buildings become commonplace – as they are in Europe and as is beginning in Vancouver, BC – then the negawatts generated by this stock of ultra-efficient buildings can truly help power the grid. Future electric vehicles can be powered by these negawatts, enabling Passive House architecture to reduce emissions from both the building and the transportation sector.

Recent research by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College of London suggests that the market impact of the declining price of solar energy and electric vehicles could significantly curtail demand for fossil fuels and limit warming to between 2.4° C and 2.7° C, when combined with reasonably strong climate policy. To hit the 2° C target, the research team says that decarbonization of buildings will be vital.

The need for bold climate solutions is urgent, especially given federal intransigence. The good news is that we as designers, builders, and building owners have the means to act on the local level, building by building. Now is the time – our collective future may well depend on it.