It’s easy to be discouraged by the lack of progress being made in Congress to address global warming and climate change. Many politicians deny that there is even a problem, and the ones who recognize the problem lack the necessary votes and seem powerless. Our leaders are deadlocked on addressing a problem that could change the world for centuries and impose extreme cost and hardship on future generations. Climate change is one of several issues for where public opinion is clear, but political action is lacking.

But in spite of this morass, clean electricity is cause for optimistic. Dirty coal plants are being shut down and replaced with cleaner natural gas and renewable generators. The cost of wind and solar energy is rapidly declining. Battery chemistry and other storage technologies are improving. The electric grid is becoming cleaner and providing an alternative to the oil and gas we now use to power our cars and trucks, heat our buildings, and warm our water. I’m excited about the potential and this is one of the reasons to write this book.

 

The story of electricity is fascinating. It includes inventers and pioneers like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla as well as capitalistic industrialists like Samuel Insull. It raises questions about monopolies and whether they make sense for society. It is a case study in the clash between government regulation and the power of free enterprise and markets. Electricity policy pits short-term gains against long-term stability and sustainability. It raises questions about how to control pollutants that endanger our health and well-being, e.g., regulation, taxes, cap-and-trade programs, or incentives.

The electric grid is a complicated contraption that few of us understand. It consists not only of the large pollutant belching power plants, but also the regional power lines supported on the large steel meshed towers that stretch across our country, the strange looking substations filled with transformers and other electrical devices located on the edges of our communities where the large transmission lines end and local distribution lines begin. It consists of the power poles along our streets that support the steel cylinder shaped transformers where the voltage is lowered even more before it drops into our home or business. Ownership and management of the grid is equally complex.

Electricity generation is much to blame for global warming. Since 1973 when the Energy Information Agency begin keeping records, the electric power sector in the U.S. has emitted over 88 billion metric tons of CO2.; the transportation sector is second with 78 billion metric tons of cumulative emissions. Annual emissions from the transportation sector now exceed the power sector, but the power sectors cumulative emissions for this roughly 50-year period are still greater.[i]

The good news is that the cost of making electricity from wind and solar has declined and these technologies, coupled with battery storage, are on the rise, providing an alternative to dirty coal plants. California, New York and other U.S. states along with several other countries have adopted policies to clean up the electric grid by mid-century or earlier. It won’t be easy and there are lots of financial and organizational issues to be addressed in the industry. There will also be political pressure to keep things as they are. Many special interests see their livelihood threatened and are willing to fight to the end to protect the status quo and their right to pollute the environment and pass the responsibility of cleaning things up to future generations.

As building designers, contractors, property managers and consumers, we have choices and are not powerless to the whelms electricity industry. We can make our buildings more energy efficient and exercise basic conservation principles to use less electricity. We can design them to avoid drawing electricity from the grid when carbon emissions are high. We can install on-site photovoltaic systems to make our own electricity. We can incorporate batteries to store the excess during the day for use later at night. 

Many of us can choose to buy electricity from the grid that is made with renewable energy. As the electricity we use becomes cleaner, we can design our buildings to replace gas and oil with electricity for transportation, space heating and hot water. Information and communications technologies coupled to our smart phones can make this process seamless and even fun. As building designers, consumers and voters, we have choices. This book is about those choices.

 

At the beginning of my career in architecture and urban planning, I thought we were going to run out of energy and I focused my career on addressing this problem. The world was using more and more oil. We were building enormous cars with tail fins and 400 horsepower engines that used a gallon of gas for every 10-miles traveled. Our buildings were not very energy efficient. Many had no insulation at all. Our lighting systems produced more heat than light. The only good thing from those days was that our homes were fairly modest in size, unlike some of the huge McMansions we see popping up today.

Our buildings have improved through more sustainable design, spurred by energy efficiency standards, and incentive programs. Our new homes, offices and stores today have solid state (LED) lighting systems that produce the same amount of visible light with 10% or less of the energy and heat. Our new windows are all double (or in some cases triple) glazed with special coatings on the protected surfaces that reduce heat transfer and filter out unwanted ultraviolet and infrared light, allowing only the desirable visible light to pass through. Our furnaces are now so efficient that combustion gases condense into an acidic liquid and do not pass through the chimney and into the atmosphere. Refrigerators are two or three times more efficient than in the rip-roaring 1960s and 1970s. And, we have smart controls like the NEST thermostat that knows when we are likely to arrive home and heats or cools our house in anticipation. California homes are now larger and filled with all sorts of devices that did not exist at the time of the 1975 Arab oil embargo, yet annual electricity use has remained roughly the same.

It’s 50 years later and we still seem to have plenty of energy. We are finding ways to suck more fossil fuels from the earth, although some techniques come with serious environmental costs like subterranean fracking to release deposits of oil and natural gas. The problem, as scientists have been warning us for 50 years, is that if we burn all of the earth’s fossil fuel deposits, we will heat the planet so much that our very own existence as humans will be threatened. The planet will survive along with durable and adaptable species like rats and cockroaches, but the lush, green planet we call home will become less hospitable for humankind. Elon Musk and others want to travel to Mars and try to make that planet habitable; wouldn’t it be a lot easier and less costly to protect, nurture and maintain the planet we have?

 

Climate change is real. In 2020, the western United States saw catastrophic wild fires that burned 60 million acres, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. The southeast was battered by hurricanes and floods. Global monthly temperatures in April, May, June, July, August and September were the hottest since official records began in 1850. Temperatures in Death Valley reached 130 F, the hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere on earth. Concentrations of carbon dioxide atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii peaked at 417 parts per million, a 50% increase over pre-industrial levels.[ii]  Other more potent greenhouse gases like methane are increasing at an even higher rate. The relationship between greenhouse gases, global warming and extreme weather events is clear and obvious to all but the most jaded climate change deniers.

If we continue on our present course, many of our coastal cities will be flooded. Already, it’s hard to get insurance and long-term mortgages for many coastal properties. Some parts of the world will be inundated with torrential rains and flooding while other areas will become bone dry. Coral reefs around the world are dying and many will soon be gone. The great glaciers are retreating, threatening water supplies to billions of people in China, India and South America. Global warming and the climate change it triggers is the greatest threat to human existence that we have ever brought on ourselves.

Jared Diamond in his book Collapse gives examples of how civilizations around the world have disintegrated as result of cutting too many trees or producing other environmental damage. Global warming and climate change elevate the threat to a devastating world-wide level. It’s not just the Easter Islands or the Mayan peninsula that Diamond writes about; we are threatening life on the entire planet.

CO2 is a stock pollutant, and with stock pollutants, what matters is the total or cumulative emissions over time. Think of a bathtub with a small drain, perhaps one that is partially stopped up. The release of water from the drain is the amount of CO2 that the natural systems in our planet can steadily absorb, mainly through photosynthesis. Continuing with the tub metaphor, we are adding far more water to the tub than can leave the drain. As water in the tub gets higher, our planet gets hotter and the impacts of climate change become more severe. At some point the tub will begin to overflow. Continuing with the metaphor, this is when the ice caps over Greenland and Antarctica melt, potentially raising ocean levels by 20 feet or more.

The long life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raises tricky policy and equity issues. The United States has about 4% of the world’s population, but is responsible for about 25% of the stock of CO2 that exists in the atmosphere. The countries of the European Union are responsible for another 22%, so the “western” world is responsible for almost half the water in the tub. While China currently has the largest carbon emissions, it is responsible for only about 13% of cumulative emissions.[iii] Populations in undeveloped countries have contributed the least to the global warming crisis, but are the ones that will be affected the most.[iv]

 

Zero-net-energy buildings are energy efficient and have on-site photovoltaic systems that produce as much energy on an annual basis as the building uses. Virtually all of these systems are connected to the electric grid through an electric meter that can measure electricity flow in both directions. During the day when it is sunny, ZNE buildings are putting electricity into the grid for other buildings to use. At night when the sun is down, the grid provides power so we can run our refrigerator and home entertainment systems.

Some zero net-energy buildings are bad neighbors. They create stress on the grid. They put power into the grid when the grid least needs it and draw power from the grid when pollution levels are high. But next-generation zero-net-energy buildings can be good neighbors, when they are super-insulated, coupled with battery storage and carefully controlled to work in harmony with the grid.

 

Most material written about the electric grid is highly technical; the goal of this book is to present it in a simpler way that design professionals, property managers and building owners can more easily understand, relate to their work, and use to take action. This book explains the electric power system in the United States from the perspective of a design professional and consumer of electricity. I focus on the interface between buildings and the electric grid. Can buildings and groups of buildings be good neighbors with each other and with the larger electric grid? How can this work to the benefit of society in a way that eventually results in a clean electric grid powered by wind, solar and other renewable energy resources?

Social justice is served when everyone can enjoy inexpensive, clean electricity produced by wind and solar. A motivation for writing this book is to share these ideas with other design professionals and property managers and to do my small part in spurring on a safe, equitable, efficient, resilient and clean supply of electricity.

 

[i]        U. S. Energy Information Agency Monthly Energy Report, Tables 11.5 and 11.6. Retrieved February 2021.

[ii]       Measurements of carbon dioxide have been carefully monitored at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii since 1958 when C. David Keeling of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography first set up the program. Concentrations vary by season. In 2020, concentrations peaked in about May at 417 ppm and declined to about 411 ppm in September. The seasonal variance is due summer plant growth in the northern hemisphere. The latest measurements are available at https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/mlo.html

[iii]      The British non-profit Our World in Data provides one of the best presentations of which countries are responsible for the stock of CO2 in our atmosphere and which countries are currently emitting the most. See https://ourworldindata.org/contributed-most-global-co2.

[iv]       As Greta Thunberg says: “the people who have contributed the least to this crisis are the ones who are going to affected the most.” This remark was made at a Berlin address, March 30, 2019. She also noted that “politicians say it’s too expensive to save the world, while spending trillions of euros subsidizing fossil fuels” and that “everyone can choose their own reality and buy their own truth.”