Limited Energy Resources

In the year 2000, the earth's population reached 6 billion people, with an additional billion anticipated by 2010. With only 7 percent of the world's population, North America consumes 30 percent of the world's energy, and building systems use 35 percent of that to operate. Off-site sewage treatment, water supply, and solid waste management account for an additional 6 percent. The processing, production, and transportation of materials for building construction take up another 7 percent of the energy budget. This adds up to 48 percent of total energy use appropriated for building construction and operation.

The sun's energy arrives at the earth at a fixed rate, X and the supply of solar energy stored over millions of years in fossil fuels is limited. The population keeps growing, however, and each person is using more energy. We don't know exactly when we will run out of fossil fuels, but we do know that wasting the limited resources we have is a dangerous way to go. Through careful design, architects, interior designers, and building engineers can help make these finite resources last longer.

For thousands of years in the past, we relied primarily upon the sun's energy for heat and light. Prior to the nineteenth century, wood was the most common fuel. As technology developed, we used wind for transportation and processing of grain, and early industries were located along rivers and streams in order to utilize waterpower. Mineral discoveries around 1800 introduced portable, convenient, and reliable fossil fuels— coal, petroleum, and natural gas—to power the industrial revolution.

In 1830, the earth's population of about 1 billion people depended upon wood for heat and animals for transportation and work. Oil or gas were burned to light interiors. By the 1900s, coal was the dominant fuel, along with hydropower and natural gas. By 1950, petroleum and natural gas split the energy market about evenly. The United States was completely energy self-sufficient, thanks to relatively cheap and abundant domestic coal, oil, and natural gas.

Nuclear power, introduced in the 1950s, has an uncertain future. Although technically exhaustible, nuclear resources are used very slowly. Nuclear plants contain high pressures, temperatures, and radioactivity levels during operation, however, and have long and expensive construction periods. The public has serious concerns over the release of low-level radiation over long periods of time, and over the risks of high-level releases. Civilian use of nuclear power has been limited to research and generation of electricity by utilities.

Growing demand since the 1950s has promoted steadily rising imports of crude oil and petroleum products. By the late 1970s, the United States imported over 40 percent of its oil. In 1973, political conditions in oil-producing countries led to wildly fluctuating oil prices, and high prices encouraged conservation and the development of alternative energy resources. The 1973 oil crisis had a major impact on building construction and operation. By 1982, the United States imported only 28 percent of its oil. Building designers and owners now strive for energy efficiency to minimize costs. Almost all U.S. building codes now include energy conservation standards. Even so, imported oil was back up to over 40 percent by 1989, and over 50 percent in 1990.

Coal use in buildings has declined since the 1990s, with many large cities limiting its application. Currently, most coal is used for electric generation and heavy industry, where fuel storage and air pollution problems can be treated centrally. Modern techniques scrub and filter out sulfur ash from coal combustion emissions, although some older coal-burning plants still contribute significant amounts of pollution.

Our current energy resources include direct solar and renewable solar-derived sources, such as wind, wood, and hydropower; nuclear and geothermal power, which are exhaustible but are used up very slowly; tidal power; and fossil fuels, which are not renewable in the short term. Electricity can be generated from any of these. In the United States, it is usually produced from fossil fuels, with minor amounts contributed by hydropower and nuclear energy. Tidal power stations exist in Canada, France, Russia, and China, but they are expensive and don't always produce energy at the times it is needed. There are few solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, wind power or geothermal power plants in operation, and solar power currently supplies only about 1 percent of U.S. energy use.

Today's buildings are heavily reliant upon electricity because of its convenience of use and versatility, and consumption of electricity is expected to rise about twice as fast as overall energy demand. Electricity and daylight provide virtually all illumination. Electric lighting produces heat, which in turn increases air-conditioning energy use in warm weather, using even more electricity.

Only one-third of the energy used to produce electricity for space heating actually becomes heat, with most of the rest wasted at the production source.

Estimates of U.S. onshore and offshore fossil fuel reserves in 1993 indicated a supply adequate for about 50 years, with much of it expensive and environmentally objectionable to remove. A building with a 50-year functional life and 100-year structural life could easily outlast fossil fuel supplies. As the world's supply of fossil fuels diminishes, buildings must use nonrenewable fuels conservatively if at all, and look to on-site resources, such as daylighting, passive solar heating, passive cooling, solar water heating, and photovoltaic electricity.

Traditional off-site networks for natural gas and oil and the electric grid will continue to serve many buildings, often in combination with on-site sources. On-site resources take up space locally, can be labor intensive, and sometimes have higher first costs that take years to recover. Owners and designers must look beyond these immediate building conditions, and consider the building's impact on its larger environment throughout its life.

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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