Bumps Along the Way to Clean Energy

By David L. Brown

According to a story today on the Detroit News website, a $900,000 demonstration house built by the city of Troy, MI with support from the local power company is closed until further notice. The house was designed without electrical and gas connections, relying entirely on solar energy. The house was dedicated with a ribbon cutting ceremony late last year.

The people in charge must have taken the global warming threat a bit too literally, because they failed to reckon on the fact that it still gets pretty cold in Michigan during the winter. Maybe they forgot that global warming means climate change, not overall warming, which resulted in an unusually cold winter this past season in many areas.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, the batteries ran down, the pipes froze and burst, and a flood of water caused thousands of dollars of damage to the house.

Well, that was a demonstration all right—a demonstration that we have a lot of learning to do before we can sail into a new world of energy independence. In fact, let’s cue Homer Simpson for what is truly a Doh! moment.

I have to wonder whether the power company, DTE, might have expected something like that to happen. If so, they might be doing Mr. Burns impressions about now, rubbing their hands together and muttering “Ex-cell-ent!” Like them, Mr. Burns is a seller of energy, but at least he uses only clean nuclear generation. DTE does do nuclear, but it also seems to be heavily invested in coal and gas.

Here is a picture of the demonstration house, which has 800 square feet and was supposed to be able to provide a living environment year-around plus enough electricity to support a home-based business and an electric car. All from solar power. In Michigan. In the winter. Double Doh!

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Well, for $900K, I have to say this doesn’t look too impressive. Not the kind of place over which Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae would be fighting each other for the chance to guarantee a jumbo loan. In fact, I’ve seen people in Mexico living in old boxcars that had more eye appeal than this thing, thanks to some bright paint and a few flower pots.

Does this represent the grim future for humanity?

Well, not necessarily. As I have written before, the concept of living above ground needs to be reconsidered for a number of reasons. It’s just too subject to the ambient temperature. Down below the frost line things don’t freeze in the winter. That’s why the water pipes to your house are buried below the ground.

In my opinion, only by going underground can a truly practical solar house become a reality. Such a house would remain naturally cool in summer and warm in winter with very little power needed for ventilation and supplemental heating. The entire above-ground lot would be available for gardens, a small orchard, chicken and rabbit coops, a greenhouse, and of course solar panels and possibly even a windmill. Such a dwelling could be almost entirely self-sufficient in food as well as energy, and could even sell energy back to the grid. We need to think outside of the box (i.e., the boxy houses we are accustomed to living in).

Every reader of this blog knows that I favor a move toward energy self-sufficiency and clean, renewable power. Please do not interpret my playful scoffing as criticism of the basic idea behind this demonstration. In fact, demonstration phases of any new technology are needed exactly so that things can go all pear-shaped. Only by making mistakes, then failing to repeat them, can progress be made. And, who knows? perhaps the house will eventually be modified to be able to survive a Michigan winter. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile, I’ve been dreaming about the concept of underground construction since I was a teenager in the 1950s, and it’s an idea whose time has come. Let’s hope someone notices. I’m not holding my breath.

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