Is there a Future for Renewable Energy?

Lucas Hamilton

An editorial appeared in the New York Times on October 27 entitled Remember Renewable Energy?, which discussed the slow moving progress by Congress (since jumping on board in 2005) with wind, solar and other projects focused on producing 10,000 megawatts by 2015.

It would appear that some of the talk about the White House needing to support alternative energy did not fall on deaf ears since the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has approved several solar power projects in recent weeks.

This is good news because we need to step up our efforts to keep up with Europe and China who are already investing heavily in wind and solar manufacturing.

Three things are cited in the editorial that need to happen in order for the U.S. to catch up:

  • Generous subsidies or alternative funding for renewable energy projects so they can compete with fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.
  • Faster approvals by agencies such as Minerals Management Service.  Three to five years of negotiations is not acceptable.  As the editorial says, “The bureaucracy now has to deliver.”
  • The expanding and updating of the electrical grid to accommodate new energy sources is crucial to any success.  That will require partnerships and the giving up of control.

What are your thoughts on the future of renewable energy?

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Alternative Energy Sources Part 2: Technology vs. Humanity


Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

Albert Einstein once said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  It is hard to believe he could have said that in the early 1920s.  What would he say today? I think human beings gamble that we can always figure out how to solve our problems because we are so smart and creative.  We have an inordinate faith in science, technology, creativity and ingenuity to find solutions for any problems we create. 

For example, we could not have developed to where we are without transportation.  But the global nature of business requires that products and people be available quickly.  Look at freight; according to CSX moving freight by rail is three times more fuel-efficient than moving freight on the highway. Trains can move a ton of freight more than 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), freight railroads account for just two percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources.  But if you need it there overnight it will have to go by air.  However, air travel greatly increases our carbon footprint.

When I was growing up traveling on an airplane was a major event.  But within, say, the last 30 years, air travel has become a way of life as opposed to a major life event.

As I said in Part 1 of this discussion on alternative energy sources, we need to diversify and have several, more efficient ways to produce energy.  For example:

  •  Solar has potential because of the amount of energy that enters our atmosphere every day in solar radiation. With deeper understanding, perhaps we can improve our efficiencies and make up for the fact that the Pacific Northwest, upper Midwest and Great Lakes region do not see sun for large periods of time.
  •  Nuclear - we haven’t issued a new permit for a nuclear power plant in the United States since Three Mile Island (TMI), which is a big mistake. We haven’t had a significant nuclear accident since TMI and although that event in 1979 had the potential to be tragic, it wasn’t.  One of the obstacles that day was the fact that there were only two telephone lines into the facility.  The people who knew how to address the problem could not reach the plant.  For nuclear power to be more palatable to the general public however we will need to find a more eloquent solution to handling radioactive waste than simply storing on-site.
  •  Wind – There is definite potential for wind energy but this is a newer focus and is not yet reaching the thresholds needed to support our ever-increasing needs for electricity.

Since cooling buildings is one of the biggest electricity hogs, we need to continue to produce products that can work with alternative energy sources to cut down on electricity consumption.  Products such as solar reflective and photovoltaic roofs, especially on commercial buildings, can help us take advantage of these big spaces and have them work for us, not against us. 

In a previous blog we touched on the fact that we need to improve our existing building stock as well as build smarter from now on. Because we reroof every 30-40 years, it’s a great opportunity to go back to existing spaces and apply products that work with the sun’s energy.  In order to succeed, we have to challenge people to use alternative products without mandating it.  The goal is to find the economic incentive for people to do the “right thing.”  One way to do this is to rephrase our outlook from upfront cost to life cycle analysis. Consumers have to take the long view on energy savings.  We have to change the way we value these things if we are ever going to fund economic incentives to meet the global warming goals of business backed initiatives like the Copenhagen Communiqué.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications, for CertainTeed Corporation

Alternative Energy Sources Part 1: Carbon Footprints -The Amish Have It Right

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

 Energy Awareness Month is the perfect time to talk about identifying alternative energy sources and our need to step up progress on developing these, so I will be discussing it over the next few blog posts.  If you want a role model for reducing carbon footprints and energy consumption, look at the Amish who have traditionally created energy with windmills and still use horses and buggies instead of cars.  I’m not suggesting that we should all turn back the clock, but we’ve got to be wiser in our energy consumption.

Americans are heavy consumers of electricity and that is probably not going to change which is why we need to invest in alternative sources for energy.

I think we can all agree that the US is too dependent on oil. One area in which we can cut back that dependence is in making electricity.  Using oil to make electricity is foolish, when we have others methods to make electricity.

On October 7, 2009 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart featured William Kamkwamba, a young African, who built a windmill to produce power for his home by looking at pictures in a book and using scraps that he found lying around.

Here is a young man in a third world country with limited resources who figures out how to create something to produce energy. Here we are with all types of resources at our disposal but we think that energy is cheap so we just pay for it without considering the environment. 

We are currently building new coal power plants in the US to meet our electricity needs, not for the future, but for today’s needs. Coal power plants are the bane of our carbon existence because they are responsible for high levels of greenhouse gases and increase our carbon footprint.

On the other hand, manufacturing has found a safe way to incorporate fly ash, a by-product of coal power plants, into concrete that actually saves us tons of carbon dioxide.  So, if we can offset the creation of carbon dioxide by 35 percent of the Portland cement by incorporating fly ash from coal power plants, what isn’t green about that?  It’s a tremendous green application of material—taking a byproduct and creating a “beneficial use” as opposed to landfilling the material. For example, CertainTeed includes fly ash in it’s formulation for fiber cement siding which accounts for its 50% recycled content.

I created a carbon calculator to monitor my carbon footprint.  What I found was that I am greener than the average European until I go to work.  My carbon footprint at work is three times my footprint in other parts of my life because of the amount of air travel I do in my job. We need to find ways to travel more efficiently in terms of energy consumption. 

The solution is never one size fits all, that’s just not the way nature works.  It’s a hundred different solutions and it’s what works best in your area and what you can afford to do.

There is a place for nuclear, solar, wind, natural gas, oil and other sources of energy. The trick is to make energy in more efficient ways, with less environmental impact from the mining and collection of the raw materials to the disposal of the waste.  Can we learn from the simple lifestyle of the Amish?  Perhaps, but even if we choose not to, we all need to take responsibility for our own carbon footprint.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications, for CertainTeed Corporation

Stars Align for Energy Efficiency

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

During the last presidential election, the candidates talked a lot about “energy independence.”  Behind the rhetoric and campaign promises, there is truth.  Like never before, the United States is in the position to fully embrace sustainability and energy efficiency.  Energy is a national security issue. We are sending money to parts of the world for oil when those countries have no long term interest in us. Less dependence on them will be a driver in identifying domestic sustainable energy resources. Truth is, we have “skimmed the cream off the milk” so now is the time to stand on our own whether we like it or not. There are four key influences that point to this alignment:

Social influences:  Consumers are more educated about energy efficiency; in part due to added focus by the media.  Television has Planet Green, news broadcasts focus on “Going Green” looking at what individuals and businesses are doing in this area. Baby boomers, who were children in the 1970’s, remember the gas lines and early public campaigns for energy efficiency and recycling. When energy became cheap and plentiful again, most of those efforts were cast aside and forgotten. Well here we are again.  Since those Boomers are now making the economic decisions, they have greater influence. After all, who’s buying hybrid cars? Baby boomers!

Economic influences: There is a great amount of venture capital and government grant money available for the development of alternative energy and energy efficient products.  Solar and wind have never totally caught on before because they were cost prohibitive.  Now, as demand grows, they will be more affordable and, therefore, embraced. Programs like Cash for Clunkers was successful partially because it motivated the consumer to move into a more energy-efficient car, keeping car manufacturers and dealers in business by creating demand and reducing the carbon footprint of poor performing vehicles.

Technology influences: This is fueled by the economic influences.  Research and development around wind, solar and ethanol as alternative energies are being funded.  Ethanol is not viable as a resource alone because of a variety of issues including water. It could, however, be a part of the solution. For manufacturers, like us, continuing to improve the energy efficiency of insulation or solar roofing products as well as finding new ways to improve other building materials, is critical.  When the housing industry is producing 2.2 million homes per year changes can’t be implemented easily.  But now, in a slower market, changes can be made to the building envelope to improve energy efficiency while keeping the home affordable.  Organizations like Oregon BEST and Cascadia’s Living Building Challenge, both of which we spoke about before, encourage the building community to take energy efficiency and net-zero building to the next level.

Educational influences: In the past, we didn’t have degreed programs around building science and sustainability. Now, this information is being incorporated into the curriculums for architects, engineers and other professionals who deal with construction. The professionals coming behind us will be prepared to take energy efficiency and sustainability to greater heights.

So, yes, the stars are aligned for lasting change with regard to lowering our carbon footprint both as individuals and corporations, embracing alternative sources of energy and leaving a legacy of innovation and sustainability for future generations. 

Your thoughts are welcome!

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation. 

Stan Gatland photo_1Stan Gatland, Manager, Building Science Technology at CertainTeed Corporation contributed to this blog.