Nuclear Doomers Should Study Canada, Colorado: James S. Russell

Manitoba Hydro Place
The exterior of Manitoba Hydro Place, in Winnipeg, Canada, is dominated at its northern end by a tall "solar chimney" that uses the buoyancy of hot air rising to draw exhaust air out of the building. It is one of many tactics this power-company headquarters uses to maintain energy consumption at about about one-third American commercial-building averages. Photographer: Paul Hultberg/KPMB Architects via Bloomberg

The nuclear-power-plant disaster in Japan and political unrest in the oil-soaked Middle East make me think of Canada and Colorado.

These are good places to visit if you’re worried about the cost of energy. There you’ll find successful conservation efforts using the simple option of using less energy. And these days the advantages of conservation -- cleaner, faster, cheaper, safer -- suddenly loom very large.

Here’s a tour for anyone interested in the future of energy.

On the eastern prairies of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, spring weather is a benign respite between frigid, windy winters and searing summers.

Such climate extremes often mean heart-stopping utility bills. Yet the headquarters of Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board, the local electric utility, features a so-called solar chimney that uses the buoyancy of hot air to aid ventilation. In winter, six-story-high glass-enclosed gardens harvest solar heat.

With these and numerous other tactics, the building uses about one third the energy of an average U.S. commercial building. Its performance is similar to what the most efficient European buildings achieve in a milder climate.

Head southwest about 1,100 miles to Golden, Colorado, outside Denver, where the Research Support Facility of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory was completed last June. Odd window hoods provide a shield against the sun in the summer, while harvesting daylight in the winter.

Net Zero

A labyrinth of concrete basement walls holds cool nighttime air to chill daytime ventilating air and stores heat from a data center for nighttime winter warmth. While these and other measures slash consumption, a total of four solar-panel arrays will eventually be in place, making up a 2.6-megawatt system that will generate about 3,700 megawatt hours annually, or enough power to bring net energy use to zero.

A few years ago “net zero” was deemed unattainable, certainly for a 222,000-square-foot office building constructed on a conventional budget. That shows how fast conservation is moving ahead, even in a political environment hostile to it.

Few existing buildings can be retrofitted to net zero, but huge cuts in energy use are possible now at low cost. An apartment in a conventional building oriented to harvest winter daylight and reject summer heat can save more than 50 percent of the heating and cooling energy needed to keep occupants from frying in a typical single-family house designed with slabs of glass facing the sun. Those savings cost nothing.

The U.S. can readily slash transportation energy use, too. Already, automakers are building vehicles that meet new standards of 35 miles per gallon. Trains could haul much more freight at one-fifth the energy consumed by trucks.

Vancouver Light Rail

Back up north, Vancouver’s new Canada Line light-rail system operates faster and at lower cost than those in the U.S. Vancouver also has long encouraged builders to erect the densest developments convenient to transit lines. That’s why Canada Line ridership quickly topped 100,000 passengers a day -- close to the capacity of a four-lane freeway. By contrast the entire 48-mile light-rail system in Dallas attracts only 66,000 daily riders.

Even if Mideast and Libyan political unrest eases, oil and gas prices will surely trend upward, given the rapid growth of consumption in China and India. Once U.S. recovery builds some steam, those prices are likely to spurt further because America’s 5 percent of the world’s population consumes about 25 percent of the world’s oil output. Nuclear energy, which had so recently seemed the clean magic bullet, will now become even more costly and therefore more difficult to finance.

Wary Investors

Government loan guarantees totaling $18.5 billion have yet to spur the long-awaited nuclear renaissance. Investors won’t sign on to the construction of plants until they know what possible new safety measures will cost.

By contrast, dozens of conservation tactics await modest incentives and government support of research. The diverse technologies that slash energy use can create a wide variety of research, engineering and manufacturing jobs.

And because conservation frees up cash otherwise delivered to people like Muammar Qaddafi, these jobs will create jobs, while reducing pollution and greenhouse gasses -- a nice payback.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press will publish his book “The Agile City” in May. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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