September 14, 2012 | 1 Comment
The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) unveiled a new home laboratory designed to demonstrate that a typical-looking suburban home for a family of four can generate as much energy as it uses in a year.
It cost $2,590,110.00. OK, that’s a firm-fixed-price contract, and how much profit is in the number will likely never be known. But a close look at the contract and the amendments suggest that the middle class suburban home is way out on the high side of constructed costs. It is after all, a government specification house.
For an initial year-long experiment, the facility will be used to improve test methods for energy-efficient technologies and develop cost-effective design standards for energy-efficient homes that could reduce overall energy consumption and harmful pollution, and save families money on their monthly utility bills. That sounds good until one realizes the inevitable “develop cost-effective design standards” will find its way into the building codes across the country. It may be a relief to know that changing codes is often a multi year and sometimes decades long exercise.
The hope is more flexibility could come of the government’s effort. Technology is rapidly changing the potential of home energy efficiency and the ability generate some power. Net-zero might seem a worthy goal, but just the savings on natural gas and electricity probably isn’t going to amortize nor offer scale to recover or profit from the extra investment.
The two-story, four-bedroom, three-bath home laboratory incorporates energy-efficient construction and appliances, as well as energy-generating technologies such as solar water heating and solar photovoltaic systems. It looks like some of the best technologies may already not be included.
Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Patrick Gallagher said, “Results from this lab will show if net-zero home design and technologies are ready for a neighborhood near you. It will also allow development of new design standards and test methods for emerging energy-efficient technologies and, we hope, speed their adoption.”
American taxpayers funded the idea through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which included green technologies among its priorities. The facility was built almost entirely with U.S.-made materials and equipment.
For the first year of its operation, the lab will be used to demonstrate net-zero energy usage. NIST researchers will use computer software and mechanical controls to simulate the activities of a family of four living in an energy-efficient home. No actual humans will be allowed to enter the house during this time so that researchers can monitor how the house performs, but lights will turn on and off at specified times, hot water and appliances will run — and small devices will emit heat and humidity just as people would.
And yet one wonders, will the doors to the outside get (left) opened and closed? The stovetop left running? Those way long showers after a real tough day? The energy exceptions not mentioned may really skew the results.
A solar photovoltaic system will generate electricity to power lights and appliances when weather permits, and excess energy will be sent back to the local utility grid by means of a smart electric meter. The house will draw energy from the grid on days it cannot generate enough on its own, but over the course of a year it will produce enough to make up for that purchased energy, for a net-zero energy usage.
NIST researchers plan to make data from the net-zero experiment available online so that researchers and the public can follow its progress. Visit http://www.nist.gov/el/nzertf/ for images, video and more details on the new laboratory.
The basic problem is the United States has a very wide range of climates and environments for homes to function within. What is best in New England isn’t likely to be best in the Desert Southwest. Anyone can come up with contrasting climates and blow up the government’s premise for the project. Still, to sell the idea up the chain of decision makes or lure the Congress into funding something, “national” had to get in and the current administration is always hot for bureaucratic “standards”.
It might have been better to drop $2.5 million over say five climates assessing the top efficiency concepts and energy harvest technologies – every 3 or 4 years. Then all of us could get information useful for making decisions about retrofitting our homes or building a new one.
But that premise runs counter to ‘government’, which is going to create the data, mine out what suits their ideas and give us minions some ‘standards’. The Public Relations skill in all this is impressive.
Its not like we could use better information and make decisions on our own to gain efficiency and produce some power. Nah . . . we’re not that smart and motivated are we?