MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 5
Summer 2009
A New Commitment to Science and Technology R&D
The Role of Oceans in Climate Change
A New Method for Negotiating
Arms Control Agreements
The Science We Need and the
Needs of Science
System at a Crossroads: Rethinking Infrastructure and Mobility
Energy Transitions and Transformations
Society's Nervous System: A Key to Effective Government, Energy Efficiency, and Public Health
An Alternate Green Initiative
Rotten Apples or a Rotting Barrel: How Not to Understand the Current Financial Crisis
The Way to Sustainability
Making the Web Work for Science
A Note to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Budget of the United States Government (2005-2010): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (2009-2014): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (1962-2010): Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Selected Agencies
Printable Version

An Alternate Green Initiative

Leon R. Glicksman

Although considerable research is underway to develop energy supply technologies that limit environmental damage, the dearth of large-scale affordable solutions for clean energy supplies that will be available in the near term presents serious concerns. The problem is compounded by the worldwide increase in energy consumption. As the developed world continues its modest energy growth, it is being overtaken by the explosive energy consumption of China, India, and other developing countries. Not only is the attention of the public and the press focused on the supply side, but federal and industrial research and development funding is heavily weighted toward supply-side solutions. It seems more reasonable to take a balanced approach to the energy problem, putting as much attention on means to reduce energy consumption as on means to generate additional energy. This requires a substantial rethinking of America’s R&D policy.

In the transportation sector, improvement of fuel economy for vehicles is finally receiving serious consideration in the U.S. Although it will certainly help reduce our reliance on liquid fossil fuels, it is not sufficient, by itself, to halt overall global warming.

The largest single energy consumption sector is not transportation, rather, it is buildings, residential and commercial buildings together consume 40 percent of our primary energy and more than two-thirds of our electricity.

Several organizations have established ambitious goals for the efficiency levels of future buildings. The American Institute of Architects has a goal of achieving, by the year 2010, a minimum 50 percent reduction from the current level of consumption of fossil fuels used to construct and operate new and renovated buildings. Some government bodies have stated goals of achieving zero net energy buildings in the next few decades. Modest improvements in energy efficiency, 20 to 30 percent reductions, can be achieved by application of current products and technology in a straightforward fashion. Techniques to lower residential heating energy consumption in northern climates by 80 percent or more have been shown to be available for new construction with acceptable life cycle costs. However, solutions to achieve similar efficiencies in commercial buildings and for homes in hot and humid climates are not yet at hand; and require substantial R&D efforts.

For the past decade, R&D support for this sector has been chronically ignored. The new administration in Washington has promised to reverse this. So what should a new research program of energy efficiency look like? The building sector compromises so many actors and contributions from so many technical disciplines that it is hard to single out a short list of the best bets. That leads to the first conclusion: the government can not get in the business of picking winners, certainly not specific technical niches. Achieving substantial levels of energy efficiency requires a combination of technologies. If there is something approaching a silver bullet, it is integrated design and operation – architects, developers, engineers, construction firms, and energy consultants working together from conceptual design through finished construction and integrated operation.

Research on integration is needed across disciplines – how to combine future developments in materials, controls, and thermal science into an optimum combination.

Such an approach not only will ensure that the major building elements such as the building skin or envelope, heating and cooling systems, ventilation, and lighting are well matched, but it will also result in substantial economies. Possible elements include windows that capture and distribute daylight deep into the building interior, thermodynamic cycles that double heating and cooling system efficiencies, and thin insulations based on nanotechnology that can be easily retrofitted on the inside of exterior walls.

Integration includes the development of virtual building technology that allows specialists in materials or thermal science to effectively transfer their innovative concepts and advanced knowledge to groups with modest technical training such as designers and developers. Understanding and promoting integration is also required across different levels of scale; from planning individual zero net energy buildings through urban master plans.

In the near term there are energy efficient building solutions that not only pay for themselves; they reduce global warming while producing net economic gains. Why has the rate of adoption been so limited? There are difficult policy issues that must be examined by theoretical studies as well as large-scale experiments.

An aggressive R&D program in the building sector would forestall a substantial portion of the demand for new power stations and give more time to develop environmentally friendly energy-supply concepts. Not only are there a host of opportunities to apply today’s efficiency knowledge, but advanced technologies – drawing on basic research by scientists and engineers in solid-state lighting, thermodynamics, turbulent flows, and nanotechnology – could allow us to economically reduce building energy demand by far more than 50 percent from today’s level. To accelerate those developments, governmental and industrial R&D efforts need to be substantially refocused and expanded, which would have the added benefit of enhancing the educational opportunities for the next generation of leaders in the building-efficiency field.

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