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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Building Green with Less Green

Air Date: Week of

The green lights on the bottom of the house show when it’s producing more energy than it needs (glowing green) or using energy from the grid (glowing red).

Host Jeff Young visits a super energy-efficient, solar powered house in Maine. Its owner uses technology he calls “state of the shelf,” rather than state of the art. The goal is a green house that’s as economically affordable as it is environmentally sustainable.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. Green housing is getting some greenbacks. Vice President Joe Biden recently rolled out a federal plan designed to cut red tape and provide grants called ‘Recovery Through Retrofit.’ He says it could cut 160 million tons of global warming gases every year by promoting energy efficient homes.

BIDEN: It will save families a combined 21 billion dollars annually in their energy bills if we do this the right way – while lessening our demand for foreign oil and preserving the environment to leave our children and grandchildren something closer to what we inherited. Not bad for a day’s work, if we can get all this done.

CURWOOD: There’s a lot attention now on how to put green housing within reach without putting households in the red. And that’s our focus for this part of the program today. We’ll hear about a big-money investment in greening low-income housing and explore ideas for financing energy efficient homes. And we start with a visit - by you Jeff - with a pioneering homeowner who says green living can be more affordable and accessible.

Over its first year, the house has generated five thousand more kilowatt hours from solar panels than it used.

YOUNG: Yeah, Dr. Keith Collins, a retired physician, brought together top designers and architects to help him build what he calls the Bright Built Barn. Dr. Collins said look for the tight little house, with a south-facing peaked roof on a hill. So I hit the road to mid-coast Maine.



YOUNG: Hello, there!

COLLINS: Hi, Jeff - Welcome to Maine.

YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

COLLINS: Well, thanks for coming up and I’d love to show you Bright Built Barn, and it’s a beautiful sunny day, and we’re making lots of electricity.

YOUNG: Dr. Collins has solar power in his place and many of the things you’d expect from energy-efficient design. Double thick insulated walls, triple paned windows and obsessive weatherproofing. But it also has something you might not expect – charm. Lots of natural light, pretty pine floors and exposed spruce beams reaching up to a high vaulted ceiling.

COLLINS: You know, some people think that to go green we should wear burlap bags and eat rocks, and I’m just not into suffering, you know? I think that if we put our minds to it we ought to be able to live very well, as well as protect the planet.

YOUNG: Let’s take a walk in here and talk a bit about your lighting, because I know that’s another area where we tend to use a lot of energy.

Energy ratio for the green house. Energy production is green and energy consumption is in red, while the blue shows the energy flow to the grid.

COLLINS: If you look over here you see these lights are what are called LED lights – they’re light emitting diodes. They’re basically little computer chips that give off light. Each of these fixtures is using five watts and giving off the same amount of light as a 75-watt incandescent bulb, so there’s a 15 times more energy efficient.


YOUNG: We climb above the moveable birch panel walls to the loft, for a look at the solar system: 30 voltaic panels provide electricity and solar thermal tubes heat water, which also heats the house. Dr. Collins likes the medical metaphor. He calls this the heart of the house. And in the corner, is the brain: a metal box with a digital display.

COLLINS: This is what I call my report card. Here it says – and this is from the day we turned on all the systems – how many kilowatt-hours have we consumed here in the barn, and it’s 1,247-kilowatt hours.

YOUNG: That’s for like a year, more than a year?

COLLINS: Yeah, that’s a year. However, we produce 6,342-kilowatt hours in that year. Giving us a net positive of 5,094-kilowatt hours as of today October 17, 2009.

YOUNG: So, your meter, your meter spins backwards?

COLLINS: Absolutely. And it spins backwards a lot. You know, basically any really sunny day, my meter’s spinning backwards.

YOUNG: And the grid, it’s your battery?

COLLINS: The grid is my battery. In other words, what we do is we put the energy out on the grid when we’re making excess, and when we’re not making excess, and we’re consuming more than we make, we draw from the grid.

YOUNG: There’s some information technology at work here to make everything play well together. But, by and large, this is low-tech, this isn’t high-tech?

COLLINS: And that’s what we tried to do. We were aiming for the state of the shelf, not the state of the art. A real goal in building this was not to build something that would be Buck Rogers, high-tech, something you needed a degree in astrophysics to run – this was something where anybody could have a house like this.

The green lights on the bottom of the house show when it’s producing more energy than it needs (glowing green) or using energy from the grid (glowing red).


YOUNG: Putting clean electrons back into the grid is also part of Dr. Collins’ plan to make the house truly carbon-neutral. He kept tabs on the CO2 emissions from construction, even using local wood, and keeping the house small – just 30 by 24 feet – he still put 500 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Collins calls that his house’s carbon debt and he can only pay it off if the house lasts.

COLLINS: Everything in the barn is designed to last 200 years, except me. [Laugh] I’m not going to last 200 years, which means I’ve got to build something not just for me, I’ve got to build it for all those generations after me who will come to use it and have to feel that it is functional, but they also have to feel that it’s beautiful.

YOUNG: So, aesthetics matter. If it’s going to be green, it’s going to be good looking, too?

COLLINS: Absolutely, because, in fact ugly houses get smashed down. So, what we need to do is we need to make a space, which is beautiful so that people will take the energy to adapt it to their needs. We are then offsetting the carbon that we put off into the atmosphere to build it.

YOUNG: You’re paying back your carbon debt, little by little.

COLLINS: Absolutely, little by little, and just to give you some numbers: 5,000. Well, if you do the math, those 5,000-kilowatt hours equate to about five metric tons of carbon dioxide.

YOUNG: Five tons down, and 495 to go.

COLLINS: 495 to go, right? So, we’ve only got 99 more years to go, and we’ll have paid off our debt. We’re already planning the party.

YOUNG: Well, Dr. Keith Collins, thanks very much. It’s a great pleasure.

COLLINS: It was great to see you, thanks for coming by.

CURWOOD: So, it sounds like a nice place, Jeff, but what would it cost?

YOUNG: Well, a house like this one with the solar system would be about $220,000. Dr. Collins says that’s roughly the same as the cost of normal construction if you average the cost over the life of a 30-year mortgage. Because remember, he’s probably never going to have to pay another power or heat bill.

CURWOOD: But, the upfront cost is still higher.

YOUNG: Mm hmm, the upfront cost is the barrier.



Click here for a diagram of a green house


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