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Little Solar Houses For You And Me

The most obvious clue to the larger picture -- a two-kilowatt BP Millenia thin-film solar system -- can be seen glinting on the rooftop of the home of Adam Indrajaya and Lina Kinandjar, a landscape worker and pastry decorator, respectively, who moved to Tennessee from Malaysia six years ago. The solar panels were provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority (the public electricity supplier throughout the seven-state region of the Southeast) and the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (located just miles away in Oak Ridge, Tenn.), which teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to build this experimental settlement.

Even more impressive than the rooftop installation is the Oak Ridge-designed technology beneath it: special insulated walls, windows, and floors; energy-efficient lighting, appliances, and ducting; and state-of-the-art systems for heating, air conditioning, and hot water. The laboratory also added more esoteric efficiency measures, such as a system that captures the heat from shower water after it goes down the drain, and even one that captures the warmth that comes off the coils behind the fridge.

... Yet the family consumes roughly 25 kilowatts of electricity a day -- less than half the 60-kilowatt average in the U.S. And whether they intend to or not, the couple may be setting a lifestyle precedent for thousands, and perhaps millions, of others nationwide. Oak Ridge is working with the DOE to come up with a prototype house that, by 2010, will cost the same to build as a conventional middle-class home while being 50 to 70 percent more efficient and functioning as a net-zero-energy home (meaning it can produce as much energy per year as it consumes). "Right now, all too frequently, the typical solar home is something akin to a customized Cadillac," said Jeff Christian, director of the Buildings Technology Center at Oak Ridge and the man in charge of the Habitat for Humanity project. "What we're trying to do is come up with the Volkswagen of net-zero-energy homes."

This all sounds great, but one thing that the article didn't really address was the issue of retrofitting existing houses. A couple years ago Professor Klepeis took us out to see his new house, which he built using a variety of green ideas (though it wasn't as fancy as the house in this article). He told us that he had thought about trying to green-up one of the existing houses in Hamilton, but concluded it wasn't within his budget.

Even setting aside qualms about suburban sprawl, since these houses seem to offer a technical fix for obvious environmental issues without requiring much of a lifestyle change, it's simply not feasible to build a high-tech new house for every person. Things like recycling, low-flow toilets, and more energy-efficient refrigerators worked because they could be slotted in to the existing building infrastructure. But getting some of the improvements the article describes might almost require rebuilding from scratch.


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