- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

When I was growing up, everything was supposed to happen by the year 2000. All cars would be running on electricity or alternative fuels. Clean air was supposed to be depleted. We would all have portable phones. Well, that one was right.

One item I thought would be in use a lot more by the 21st century was integration of renewable energy into our daily living at home.

At one time I wanted to build myself an “earth home,” with one or two sides of the house underground. It would be heated by solar power and use photovoltaic panels that would convert solar energy into electricity that would be stored in a bank of batteries.

Ah, the dream of green living.

Builders have not seen public support swelling for such alternative, renewable energy methods, so houses continue to be built with energy technologies that haven’t changed much over the last several decades: central air conditioning, forced-air furnaces, heat pumps, fossil fuels and natural gas.

At least the politicians are addressing it.

A recent Pew Research study showed support for more funding of renewable energy from both political parties is growing in face of the latest oil crisis. In addition, research continues to bring these technologies into an affordable price range so that they can be used on a more massive level.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (www.nrel.gov), operated by the Department of Energy (www.energy.gov), is the nation’s primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

The group operates on a $220 million budget, dedicated to the development of renewable energy. An example of the group’s mission was depicted in a Habitat for Humanity house built last year in Wheat Ridge, Colo. The home, on Carr Street in that town — no relation — is a net zero energy house, meaning it creates as much energy as it consumes. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Built under the Department of Energy’s Building America Program, “the house features superinsulated walls, floors, and ceilings; efficient appliances; a solar water heating system; heat-recovery ventilation system to assure indoor air quality; compact fluorescent lighting; and windows coated with thin layers of metallic oxide to help keep heat in during the winter and out during the summer. The home’s 4-kilowatt photovoltaic system is sized to produce excess energy in the summer to balance out winter consumption,” the NREL Web site reports.

Just in case you were wondering if this type home is only for the eccentric energy consumer, Pulte Homes Inc., one of the largest home builders in the country, is working with Building America Program to develop homes that consume 50 percent less energy than the average home consumes today.

An online flier at NREL.gov about the Pulte homes (built in several Las Vegas suburbs) describes the materials used to build the houses:

• Windows. Spectrally selective glass lets visible light through, but keeps the solar heat gain out. This lowers the cooling load during the summer and reduces the fading of furniture caused by sunlight.

• Roofing. An unvented roofing system changes the home’s thermal barrier from the ceiling to the roof deck. Ductwork for air conditioning and heating is located inside, surrounded by attic air at close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit rather than as much as 140-degrees Fahrenheit, as in a typical attic.

• Heating. A smaller heating system is required since the house can be so energy efficient. The gas water heater in the garage, for instance, provides hot water and space heating in many houses. In other houses, the furnace is downsized and uses an efficient sealed-combustion design.

• Cooling. A smaller air-conditioning unit is needed since improved air-tightness and energy efficiency measures allow the air conditioner to be downsized by 30 percent.

As the auto industry has begun to respond to our energy crisis with more hybrid and alternative fuel cars, we can only hope the building industry will begin to do the same. These methods and products are a good start.

M. Anthony Carr has covered real estate since 1989. He is the author of “Real Estate Investing Made Simple.” Post questions and comments at his Web log (https://commonsenserealestate.blogspot.com).

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