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Building Solar: The Prospects and Costs of Living with the Sun

A Conference Report
by Rolf Hug
12/17/2001

Both the public and experts know: solar buildings cost money. This is often a reason why buildings are not built with solar technology in mind. But architects, engineers and construction workers also know that the price for a solar building doesn't have to represent an insurmountable obstacle, especially when the benefit of solar buildings doesn't flow directly into the cost calculation.

Low-energy building

Low-energy building "Amann" in Rottenburg-Oberndorf, Germany with 14 square meters of façade collectors. New solar buildings are the "freestyle" for architects and planners. Solar renovation of the building is considered duty because in existing buildings "gray" energy is found in substantial amounts.

Photo: Energy and Nature (Energie & Natur) SOLAR syndicate.

On the seventh and eighth of December 2001, 100 experts discussed the cost effectiveness of low- and zero-energy emission buildings. EUROSOLAR, the European Association for Solar Energy (europäische Vereinigung für Sonnenenergie), held the conference in which the theory and practice of energy-saving construction was to be discussed.

Princible considerations of energy supply were at the center of the first part of the event: Eurosolar president, Hermann Scheer, criticized the misleading handling of solar energy in statistics; Jörg Schindler of Ludwig Bölkow-System Technology Ltd. (Ludwig Bölkow-Systemtechnik GmbH) heralded the turning point for global oil and gas production; and Rüdiger Stallberg, Division Head of the Ministry for Urban Development and Living, Culture and Sport of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, documented how much his state pays for solar building.

In the afternoon and during an excursion architectures gave a presentation on solar building in practice. The state's solar settlements offered substantial opportunity,to compan costs, strategies, and solutions.

What to do? What to do!

With the goal of solar building comes the question: How can a building's fossil energy use be reduced and even completely covered by the sun? Rüdiger Stallberg explains that answers are not just available in theory. The German state North Rhine-Westphalia already began to realize the solar alternative in the 1980's: 44,000 projects for the use of solar energy and about 450 million € in state funds amounted to about 2.5 billion dollars in total investments. The use of renewable energies has advantages for the economy as well as for ecology. With a volume of about 4 billion dollars (4 billion €) and 28,000 jobs created, the renewable energy industry is now an important economic factor. North Rhine-Westphalia counts as one of the most important and most active "solar states" of Germany. The REN Promotional Program (REN-Förderprogramm), the State Initiative for Future Energies (Landesinitiative Zukunftsenergien) and the North Rhine-Westphalia Energy Agency (Energieagentur NRW) are the state's central components of solar building politics, which is implemented for the good of the public. The football stadium "Arena Aufschalke", with a 1,200 square meter large solar power system, gives Stallberg, Germany a score of "1 to 0 for the sun". Even the governor, Wolfgang Clement, picked up and toted the pictorial comparison that North Rhine-Westphalia wants to play solar in the pro league.

The area "Auf Schalke"

The arena "Aufschalke": Germany's Professional Football League sits on the sun.

Photo: FC Schalke 04

Detlef Leinberger, Chairman of the (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau KfW) endorsed the positive value of solar building from a bank's point of view: "Energy conservation measures can be financially viable when they are carried out together with reconstruction measures. As a state promotional bank, the supported the energy improvement of 1.3 million buildings and therewith has helped prevent 7 million tons of CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere each year, corresponding to one-fifth of the german federal government's climate goals."

What Is Energy and How Much Does It Cost?

In his lecture, Eurosolar president Dr. Hermann Scheer criticized the economical value given to the solar energy radical: the prevailing economic paradigm misjudges that not all energy is alike, and it confines the concept of energy to commercial energies alone. According to Scheer, this is also true for a large part of science, which complies with false assumptions and therefore codifies the determining significance of energy supply structures. This brings Scheer to the conclusion that an isolated and current cost comparison between fossil-nuclear and renewable energies doesn't have anything to do with rational economics.

Hermann Scheer: "Energy Statistics Are Conceptually Deceptive and Intellectually Worthless"

Why isn't the free energy from the sun worth anything? Because the sun doesn't send a bill - and we don't notice that we use it: constantly and before every technical, cost-involved conversion. Scheer remembers that the lowest temperature isn't 0º Celsius, but rather -270º Celsius. All higher temperatures can be traced back to solar energy, which doesn't have to be paid for. With this in mind, fossil and nuclear energy sources don't account for 94 % of the global energy balance, but rather they only account for about one percent. For example, sun light and intelligent lighting planning save electricity for artificial lighting without being counted in energy statistics. Even the heat provided by 3 million solar collectors isn't included in any energy statistics, according to Scheer. The Eurosolar president suggests, "forgetting these incomplete and therefore unscientific statistics." They just feed the "myth of conventional energy's indispensability".

Hermann Scheer book

Hermann Scheer outlines a position that can be read in the books: Solar World Economy ("Solare Weltwirtschaft") and Changing Climate ("Klimawechsel"). When comparing fossil and solar energies, the difficulty of the energy chain from the source up to its use is faded out and done "as if everything before and after conversion in the power plant 'didn't matter and didn't cost a thing'."

Hermann Scheer and Carl Amery discuss the path from a fossil to a solar culture. A german review can be found in the Solarserver bookstore.

According to Scheer, the efficiency and costs of a conventional power plant should not be based on one component or one link of the chain. He maintains that after a completely inclusive calculation of all losses within the chain, (for example, the development of a source, the construction of the infrastructure, as well as the transport and distribution) the efficiency level for fossil fuel plants is not close to 40 % (conversion), but rather it is probably less than 10 percent.

At the conference, Scheer maintained that renewable energies change energy supply structures, displace the fossil-nuclear energy economy and avoid long-term costs. Solar buildings deliver these advantages over a period of decades, whether it is through "passive" conservation methods or through "active" energy production. Plus, the unavoidable climbing costs of fossil fuels can not be comprehended with current numbers, but rather with a mortgage for building owners whose value will first be measured in five, ten or twenty years.

When will the Age of Oil and Gas end?

The oil economy crisis is not going to come - it is already here. Scheer shares this assessment with another speaker, Jörg Schindler, of Ludwig Bölkow-System Technology Ltd., who is the strategy and technology adviser for sustainable energy and transportation systems.

He forwards the thesis that oil production outside OPEC will reach its maximum in the next ten years, and after that production will decline. This represents a great temptation for OPECs price policy, but in these countries, too, maximum production will be reached soon thereafter. Schindler asserts that it is worth thinking about the turning point rather than the "last drops" of oil, as is always the case in broad discussions.

This graphic shows yearly oil finds since 1930.
This graphic shows yearly oil finds since 1930. Up until 1930, about 150 gigabarrels (Gb) had been found. The bar graph shows the proportion of oil that was found in giant oil fields larger than 500 million barrels ("Giants"). The maximum amount of oil finds took place in the sixties. All efforts and modern technology could not prevent a decrease in new finds. Literature: J.C. Campbell, The Coming Oil Crisis, Petroconsultants and Multiscience Consulting, 1997.
Schindler is supported by numbers from the largest independent database ("Petroconsultants" in Geneva, Switzerland) as well as by Petroconsultants' authors' decades-long experience in analyzing petroleum sources. What's more, their evaluation of the information includes more than 10,000 oil fields.

His conclusion: In coming years there will probably be another series of violent price swings, and this price instability will continue until the maximum production has been exceeded. Then the market will reflect the long-term scarcities, and the price level will be noticeably higher than today. This will be a long-term signal for consumers and investors, and people will try to systematically replace oil with other energy carriers.

Schindler also stresses the importance that the finiteness of oil be perceived as a current problem and not as a one that we must first face seriously in a few decades. It will only then become clear that we must now begin a fundamental reconstruction of our energy supply, and that there are no alternatives

Solar Building in Practice

How the energy supply conversion and reconstruction should take place, and even that it does take place at all, were the topics of the conference's second part. Architects, planners and engineers debated the costs. Experiences with low-energy and passive buildings, or those from the 50 Solar Settlements Project in North Rhine-Westphalia, both show that the expenses of preventing energy losses and active solar use are not unreasonable burdens. Above all, solar construction doesn't portray any additional activity: The "gray" energy that is deployed in the construction and bound in a building's components is one of the largest items of the energy balance. Therefore, it is eventually better not to build, as PhD. engineer Norbert Kaiser from Düsseldorf, Germany specifically explained while reflecting on the cost effectiveness. And when something is to be built or renovated then cost effectiveness can be achieved through the art of leaving things out. In order that a building can pay back its energy costs, the energy use during the manufacturing process must be minimized, components must be planned and built according to need, and finally, use must be minimized and the regenerative production must be optimized.

olar settlement Steinfurt-Borghorst:

Photo: Solar settlement Steinfurt-Borghorst: 42 apartments in double-, row-, and multiple-family buildings. Solar construction becomes more economical when more living space is under one single roof.

Picture: North Rhine-Westphalia State Initiative for Future Energies

Concepts in Context

Building is expensive, and so is solar building: Single-family homes constructed according to low-energy or passive building standards cost around 10 % more than conventional buildings. The combination of heat insulation, ventilation technology and solar power and heating systems reduces energy use by a factor of 10. Savings of 50 kilowatt-hours of energy per square meter per year (for new buildings) or over 100 kWh with solar renovation can pay off with rising prices over middle and long-term periods. Solar settlements with more living units under one roof are more economical to realize-in this case additional expenses are about 5 %. The new settlements in Steinfurt-Borghorst and Gelsenkirchen, as well as the solar renovations in Köln-Bilderstöcken or Köln-Bocklemünd, display further qualities. The catalogue of requirements for the "50 solar settlements" guarantees social living quality in addition to the ecological advantages, or it even combines the two. The concept for the settlement in Bielefeld also includes a financially attractive offer for public transportation and a car sharing pool for common use of passenger cars. When compared to the heating need corresponding to 750 liters of oil, the individual use of a car 50 kilometers per day every day of the year results in the use of 1,000 liters of gasoline.

The solar settlement Köln-Bocklemünd The solar settlement Köln-Bocklemünd
Before and after: The solar settlement Köln-Bocklemünd combines affordable living space and low energy costs. Picture: Gudrun Langmack, architect from Erftstadt, Germany.

Solar Renovation of Older Buildings: Modern Apartments, Reasonable Rents, Low Heating Costs

The excursion to the EUROSOLAR conference showed over fifty architects and building planners the prospects of solar construction with building portfolios. In Köln-Bocklemünd the architects MIKSCH + PARTNER from Düsseldorf renovated a settlement dating from the seventies. They improved the façade through heat insulation and with a new ceramic outer layer. Photovoltaic modules mounted on 1,500 square meters of roof, façade, and balcony areas produce solar power that is then fed into the grid.

The solar settlement Köln-Bilderstöckchen was given the 2000 Energy and Environment Prize (Energie- und Umweltpreis 2000) by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy (Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt und Energie). The architect Gudrun Langmack from Erftstadt received first prize and € 5,000 for her ecological, economical, and socially acceptable renovation. The project is estimated to cost about € 5.5 million); the renovation will receive just under € 500,000) from the REN Promotional Program and the North Rhine-Westphalia Energy Conservation Program (Energiesparprogramms NRW). € 750,000) was given for the energy measures.

The building to be renovated was adapted to the needs and requirements of the present: Originally an artillery depot built in 1909 and later transformed into apartments in 1937, the renovated building offers affordable and energy-economical living space for families and singles. Rent (not including utilities) for current tenants was set at about .5/m²; new tenants will pay about seven dollars per square meter . Heating energy needs were reduced by 80 %, which makes the costs per square meter per year come in under 25 cents (50 pfennigs). The architecture's successful implementation of her concept combines "passive" measures (avoidance of energy expenses for components; conservation of "gray" energy) and active energy production with solar collectors and a wood pellet central heater that is supported by a gas heater on cold days. The result is impressive: Through the renovation the total energy demand was reduced to 6 % of the original value. New, high-insulation windows, the16 centimeter outer layer heat insulation, the insulation of the roof and basement and the building exterior's extreme imperviousness to air leakage are all parts of the energy conservation packet. Instead of using 244 kilowatt-hours per square meter of living area per year, tenants now use just 14.5 kilowatt-hours. The ecological balance is also positive: The solar settlement in Köln-Bocklemünd prevents 702 tons of CO2 emissions from entering the atmosphere every year.

Minimizing heat loss and use of renewable energy production reduce the heating demand by a factor of five and the energy use by a factor of 3.Graph Minimizing heat loss and use of renewable energy production reduce the heating demand by a factor of five and the energy use by a factor of 3.Graph
Before and After: Minimizing heat loss and use of renewable energy production reduce the heating demand by a factor of five and the energy use by a factor of 3.Graph: North Rhine-Westphalia State Initiative for Future Energies.

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