COMMENTARY: The Slow-Building Movement?

As Construction Slows, Conservation the Focus at Green Building Conference

A Practical Solar heliostat is controlled by the homeowner"s PC and can be used for natural lighting and space-heating.© Practical Solar

The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) welcomed hundreds of renewable energy and green building enthusiasts to its Building Energy 09 conference held March 10-12, 2009 at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center. Highlights included dozens of workshops, a product and services exhibition and an inspirational keynote address by Marc Rosenbaum of Energysmiths. The overall feeling was one of great optimism, given the Obama administration’s focus on renewable energy. It was tempered, however, by two clouds. One, of course, is the credit quagmire that has stopped many projects in their tracks. The other is a fear that with the coming surge in spending on renewable energy and green building, much of it will be wasted. Many of the experts giving the workshops cautioned against making the mistakes of the "70s and "80s when industries like solar and wind had their first shots at making a significant contribution to the nation’s energy mix.

The other mantra that could be heard over and over was that conservation should be our first priority. Marc Rosenbaum’s keynote was largely about the important of making old buildings more energy efficient. Called "deep energy retrofits," he pointed out that with the slowdown in building, most of the 120 million homes we live in now will still be here in 2030 — and that extreme energy makeovers will reduce fossil fuel use far faster than the retrofit of renewable energy systems. In his workshop titled "Solar Space Heating," Everett Barber of Solar Consultants, LLC, flatly stated that adding a solar system shouldn’t even be considered until a whole litany of energy-conserving improvements are made. The best-attended workshop, "Everything Important About Single Family Efficiency," presented by Larry Harmon of Air Barrier Solutions, was all about making relatively modest improvements to reduce energy use in the home.

A horizontal geothermal ground loop.© Brian Henderson

Despite the home-building downturn, there was plenty for green builders at BE 09, too. It was a great way for everyone to trade notes on zero-energy homes, advanced construction techniques, and wind, thermal and electric solar, microhydro and geothermal energy systems. Perhaps the most inspirational presentation was by Richard Komp of the Maine Solar Energy Association. His hands-on workshop showed how to assemble the thermal-electric hybrid collector he designed 30 years ago. He also recounted his many trips to third-world countries where he has taught people to use solar energy for everything from electrifying a school for the first time to roasting coffee beans. The septuagenarian was off to Rwanda at the close of the show.

The neatest product on the exhibition floor was a heliostat from Practical Solar that can be programmed to continually reflect and focus sunlight into a room to enhance daylighting and heating — or even to the spot where your pet likes to sun. Velux’s pre-packaged domestic hot water heating system looked like a winner. The low-profile collectors go on the roof similarly to a roof window, so reroofing in the future is less of a hassle. And Roth’s Radiant Panel System looked like an easy way to add radiant heating to any new or existing floor. No concrete subfloor or structural changes required.

CONTACT: NESEA Building Energy 09

JOE PROVEY is a Connecticut-based environmental writer.