This week, I received a link to an excited discussion of "zero energy houses." After extensive research and development, a series of demonstration houses have been produced that are claimed to enable the owner to live comfortably with no expenditure of energy..
This was accomplished by developing new, high tech materials, instrumentation, and requirements for the owner to modify his behavior to minimize energy usage. New developments include:
- Icynene foam insulation;
- Rooftop solar panels;
- Low-flow plumbing fixtures;
- Energy Star lights and appliances;
- Tankless water heaters;
- Abundant natural light and daylighting;
- High performance fiberglass windows; and
- Bamboo floors and fiber cement siding.
The friend who sent me the link was surprised that I was not delighted with these developments.
I think it is technologically wrong, and rather sad, to see so much energy (both physical and psychological) being poured into the idea of minimizing energy use. Energy is defined as the capacity to do work or take action. You can’t do any work or take any action without expending energy. So any serious piece of work like this, requires a significant expenditure of energy.
Some people react with horror to such a statement. They say, no, we have to reduce energy waste and improve efficiency. But that’s a false alarm. There is nothing in a bustling energy program that restricts one’s efforts to improve efficiency and reduce waste. Any good business knows you have to do both.
The part I find sad, is that a great deal of energy was expended for no useful purpose. If all that energy had been put into building new power plants, or housing or hospitals or laboratories...But what is there to show for all this effort?
The idea that we should restrict energy production is based on the assumption that producing energy is harmful to the planet. And if you have to produce, collect, transport, process and then handle the waste from a low-density fuel like coal, switch-grass or chicken manure, then you do have an incentive to minimize it. But the only effluent from nuclear power is CO2 assumed to arise from coal-powered uranium enrichment plants. And even that flimsy premise produces less CO2 per kwh than windmills or sunshine.
Any non-nuclear process requires tens of millions times more material than a nuclear plant, to produce a given amount of electricity. Nuclear has virtually no impact on the earth, so there is no reason to restrict its use. Having finally discovered the near-perfect energy source, we need not continue to look to paleo-technologies like windmills and sunbeams.