Electrification is insufficient without passive house design


Passive House in Glendale (Photo – passivehouseprojects.org)

The call to “electrify everything” in our homes to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases is an important step, but it is insufficient.

By Robert Hawk

Without cooling, the interior of most buildings becomes warmer than the air temperature outside, and heat is the number one cause of weather-related death in the United States.

However, electrification alone is not a solution. The transition to clean energy will lead to increased household electrical loads, which means higher utility bills (electricity is more expensive than gas per unit of energy), amplified by the increased need for electricity in a warmer future.

Also, the need for more electricity will require more power plants. Will we accept the ever-increasing industrialization of green spaces and campaigns for ever more renewable energies?

For buildings to be electrified and utility bills to remain affordable, demand for electricity must drop significantly. An energy transition plan must reflect this economic reality.

High-performance building technology reduces electricity demand and produces resilient buildings suitable for extreme weather conditions and grid outages. Most buildings in the nation, including single-family residences, are drafty and poorly insulated (even in Pasadena). Buildings with robust exterior envelopes are able to passively maintain safe interior temperatures for about three days, providing occupants with shelter during periods of high heat with long power outages. Even stronger resilience is ensured if accompanied by a modest solar panel and an equally modest energy storage system due to the low energy consumption of the building.

A building with a modern design

(Photo – passivehousecal.org)

passive house design

passive house design allow electrification of buildings and improves resilience; it reduces the heating and cooling demand found in legacy designs by approximately 90%. This remarkable saving is achieved thanks to the super-insulation of the building envelope, the sealing of the building and the installation of energy recovery ventilation. Reducing heat loss and gain through building walls reduces energy demand and energy bills. It’s not rocket science, but it’s building science and sound economics.

There are more benefits. Passive houses are quiet. The airtight and insulated casing attenuates exterior noise quite noticeably. Even next to a freeway, it’s like living on a quiet suburban street. Passive houses are healthier because indoor air quality can be controlled. The ventilation system comes with owner configurable air filters. High-quality filters can maintain superb indoor air quality even under long-time smoke extraction.

Passive house design can reduce carbon emissions immediately, even before building electrification, through greater efficiency. After the transition, it is a simple way to suppress the growing energy demand. This will in turn reduce electricity bills and minimize the industrialization of the countryside.

So the advice for electrifying buildings in support of climate action is simple:

  • 1. maximize the energy performance of the building,
  • 2. electrify everything, and
  • 3. power everything with clean energy.

This first step is vital because it is a passive way to manage electricity demand and reduce utility costs.

High-performance passive building design is the most powerful tool available to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment. It has been tested around the planet. Passive House Design started in Germany but has been widely adopted in the United States. For more information, see naphnetwork.org and passivehousecal.org.

Robert Hawk worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 35 years. He left JPL to start a sustainability consulting business and is a Certified Passive House Consultant. He is active in the Pasadena Building Electrification Coalition and Pasadena 100a group pushing for 100% clean energy in Pasadena by 2030.

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