The Hypocrisy of the Developed World and Sustainability

By Zach Kirkhorn

As I was thinking about what to write for this blog, I got in my car and drove to Whole Foods to grab lunch. While eating my free range chicken, I sat staring at the below billboard. Whole Foods wanted me to understand how it sources fish from sustainable fisheries and contributes to increased use of wind power around the country. I briefly felt good about my contributions to building a sustainable world.

But then was struck by the hypocrisy of it all. I paid far too much of a premium for that simple meal and created too much trash. Rather than walking, I drove. And when I returned home, I realized I left the lights on in my apartment. Jeeze. Do these sustainability efforts really make a difference? Or does it just make citizens of the second most polluting nation in the world feel better about themselves. I turned to the data to get some perspective. Continue reading

Why do we drive smart cars but live in dumb homes?

By Jan Dolezal

Cars were very simple thirty years ago, but today an average passenger car contains about 100 microprocessors and 5 miles of wiring. Electronics accounts for about a third of the car cost. Customers are happy to pay that, because they know car intelligence increases safety, comfort and performance while reducing operating costs. But look at your home – it is almost as primitive as homes used to be some three decades ago. Building intelligence could also significantly improve safety, comfort and performance of homes. We spend more time in buildings than in cars so why on Earth do we live in such dumb houses?

We have all the required technology to build smart HVAC systems that reduce temperature when you are not at home and restore it automatically before your arrival, run non-critical appliances in energy off-peaks or automatically control angle of window shades to assist with passive heating and cooling. But a combination of factors has prevented the same smartening revolution that transformed the automotive industry occur in the construction industry.

  • Developing countries are still struggling with sufficient housing quantity and wait for innovation to come from developed countries. However unlike mass-produced cars, majority of houses in developed countries are unique and designing smart systems for individual installations is uneconomical.
  • Building automation is either expensive or unreliable. Bringing together all the smart components into a system is very costly in individual installations due to lots of professional human labor involved. Do-it-yourself wireless systems are cheap, but often fail the same way a DYI car is likely to face problems.
  • The construction cycle for buildings is longer than for cars and therefore innovation slower. Developers don’t possess smart house expertise required to include smart systems cheaply during construction and retrofitting later is expensive.
  • Even though buildings consume more energy and produce more emissions than cars, there is lack of regulations. While there are stringent requirements for car emissions, there are currently no mandatory requirements for energy consumption of residential buildings and very few requirements for commercial buildings.
  • There are split-incentives. For rental properties, the additional fixed investment is borne by owner, but benefits reaped by tenants. Demand response of a house benefits the whole energy sector, but benefits are seldom passed on the owner. Unlike heavily taxed gasoline, electricity, water and gas are often subsidized providing even less incentives for a smart house to conserve them.

Widespread use of smart houses might actually start in China where the government needs to efficiently develop new smart cities for urban migrants and at the same time has to find ways to reduce consumption of energy and other resources, because of current severe environmental situation. The scale of Chinese build-out might produce standardized cheap smart house systems to be widely adopted in other countries. Adoption will be aided by increase of modular prefabricated construction and regulations such as the EU mandate to have all new buildings nearly zero net energy by 2020.

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