Blog 96. Where did solar buildings go?

When I say “solar building,” I don’t mean a house, or a school, or a parking shed, or some other building with photovoltaic panels on the roof.  These panels are the things that come in a box, that can be screwed to almost any roof, and that make electricity.  Well, they aren’t usually attached to a north-facing roof because that’s where the sun isn’t–if you are north of the equator.  Electricity is fine, but we’re not talking about electricity here.

What are solar buildings?
“Solar buildings” is a generic term for buildings designed  to provide thermal comfort (that’s temperature) of the occupants with energy drawn from the environment by the building itself.

Active systems.
“Active” solar systems put heat-gathering panels (“collectors”) on the roof, and pump solar-heated fluid through the collector to heat, or in a few cases to cool, the building.*  Active solar systems were the first vision for solar-heating of buildings during the energy crisis of the 1970’s, when Congress passed the Solar Heating and Cooling Demonstration Act of 1974**.  Now, about 39% of the nation’s energy use is in buildings; then, it was about one-third.

Passive systems.
In the 1970’s, a few innovative architects and builders began manipulating the designs of the buildings themselves, using the building both to collect and to store the solar heat to keep folks warm during the night.  Buck Rogers of Los Alamos called such systems “passive,” meaning the energy flow is largely by natural mechanisms rather than by pumps and blowers.  Workers at a few government laboratories began applying engineering principles to investigate “passive” heating and cooling.  The solar group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory produced an engineering design handbook for residential-size buildings in all U.S climates.  They even demonstrated factory-built modular solar houses, both passive and active designs that provided three-fourths or more of the total heating energy requirement in a cold, sunny winter climate.

In the west and southwest, solar buildings sprung up around the landscape.  To save the expense of a gas pipeline, one developer allowed only passive houses in its subdivision near Santa Fe, NM.  For a while, passive was popular.  What happened?

Down with solar!
First, the Reagan administration discredited*** unconventional energy and related energy research, despite the fact that passive houses worked while costing about 10% more than conventional equivalents.  The discredit stopped the research, but the mechanisms of the American housing market killed the buildings themselves.  For passive houses in a new subdivision, the streets would ideally be arranged to allow a long side of the house to face south.  That requires advanced thinking by the planning commission.  Furthermore, a speculative builder wants to build a house just like the house next door that sold last week, and the upscale buyer of a brand-new house isn’t interested in energy costs.  The bank isn’t interested in financing anything that doesn’t look just like the house next door.  In short, the city, the builder, the buyer, and the bank all had to make coordinated decisions.  American culture just doesn’t work that way, and Americans prefer to set the temperature to one-degree accuracy, rather than to save energy.

Decisions, decisions.
Now forty years later, we still can’t make a technical decision if the underlying science challenges social mythology.  Consider the disposition of stored nuclear wastes, global climate change, conservation of water, preservation of oceans and fisheries, zoning for earthquakes and floods, support of Mars excursions rather than earth science, and corporate-style education in universities.

It’s as though we would rather have global warming than house warming, and politically it’s an unmentionable elephant in the room.  Well, wait a while.  Another while.

*  Yes, some chillers run by heat.  For example, search “gas-powered refrigerators” to see several models for your kitchen.

** In the view of a few of us grouches, the demonstration act of 1974 forced demonstration of premature systems and hardware that failed, doing as much damage to solar energy as the subsequent actions of the Reagan administration.

***  Words like “…there is no energy problem that the market cannot solve …”