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Energy Efficiency First, Renewables Later

Willem Post's picture
President, Willem Post Energy Consuling

Willem Post, BSME'63 New Jersey Institute of Technology, MSME'66 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, MBA'75, University of Connecticut. P.E. Connecticut. Consulting Engineer and Project Manager....

  • Member since 2018
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  • Dec 15, 2011

The usual custom among energy systems analysts is to make projections regarding future energy consumption and work back from those projections to what is required to meet them. Following business-as-usual practices, Brussels projects a doubling of Europe’s energy consumption by 2050, and that 60-80% of the energy generation in 2050 will be renewable, but likely not CO2-free.


Just imagine a Europe (or a US) covered with several thousand square miles of highly-visible solar panels, several hundred thousand, 350 to 500 ft high, highly-visible, noise-making wind turbines, highly-visible transmission lines on tens of thousands up to 135-ft tall steel structures, etc., to produce most of the projected doubling of energy consumption by 2050.


More of Europe will look like New Jersey in the US. Will tourists still want to come? Will people be happy with all their energy at the expense of their quality of life? Last time I was in the Netherlands, I could not believe all the changes that had taken place. Almost nothing was untouched by “modernity’ during the past 50 years.


Would it not be better to project near-zero GDP growth, near-zero population growth, and a 50%  reduction of energy intensity, Btu/$ of GDP, by 2050 and work back from THOSE objectives to what is required to meet them? Put the horse before the cart?


Note: A nation’s GDP consists of a mix of energy consuming activities. Changing the mix while keeping GDP constant is meant by near-zero GDP growth. The additional goal of reducing energy intensity by 50% by 2050 is meant to be due to the mix changes and increased energy efficiency.


An economically-viable and environmentally-beneficial measure to reduce CO2 for the US would be increased energy efficiency. A 50-60% reduction in Btu/$ of GDP is feasible with existing technologies. Such a reduction would place the US on par with most European nations AND would make the US more energy independent AND would move the US closer to the 1990 Kyoto CO2 emissions goal.


The US has some catching up to do regarding energy efficiency. The energy intensities, Btu/$GDP, of the US, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Denmark and Japan are 9111, 7396, 6145, 4901, 4845 and 4519, respectively. If the US would reduce its energy intensity by 4,000 Btu/$GDP, the US economy would


– have energy cost savings of 4,000 Btu/$GDP x  $14.5 trillion GDP x $4/million Btu (natural gas) = $232 billion/yr 

– need to invest less in new power plants and unsightly transmission and distribution systems 

– pollute less, emit less CO2, spend less on healthcare 

– live in more compact communities, have more energy efficient residences and drive more high mileage vehicles. 


There are major side benefits from becoming more energy efficient. People have to put on their thinking caps. It leads to better trained people, technological advances and better products and services that are more competitive which helps exports, reduces the trade deficit, increases household incomes and tax collections. Energy efficiency is a lifestyle with many rewards.




Promotors of renewable energy often overstate its benefits and playdown its drawbacks. This swaying of the lay public makes perfect business sense, but often leads legislators, also part of the lay public, to perform “constituent service”, which usually leads to crony-capitalism that benefits the top 1%, and to pass laws that benefit the renewables oligarchy at the expense of the lay public, whose “benefit” is higher electric rates.


Renewable Energy is Expensive: Heavily-subsidized wind energy on ridgelines of New England costs about 9.5 – 10 c/kWh, unsubsidized about 15c/kWh; this compares with New England annual average grid prices of 5.5c/kWh. Offshore wind energy is even more expensive. Here are some examples:


Cape Wind: Cape Wind Associates, LLC, plans to build and operate a wind facility on the Outer Continental Shelf offshore of Massachusetts. The wind facility would have a rated capacity of 468 MW consisting of 130 Siemens AG turbines each 3.6 MW, maximum blade height 440 feet, to be arranged in a grid pattern in 25 square miles of Nantucket Sound in federal waters off Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Island; the lease is for 46 square miles which includes a buffer zone. 


The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities approved a 15-yr power purchase agreement, PPA, between the utility National Grid and Cape Wind Associates, LLC. National Grid agreed to buy 50% of the wind facility’s power starting at $0.187/kWh in 2013 (base year), escalating at 3.5%/yr which means the 2028 price to the utility will be $0.313/kWh. The project is currently trying to sell the other 50% of its power so financing can proceed; so far no takers.


A household using 618 kWh/month will see an average wind power surcharge of about $1.50 on its monthly electric bill over the 15 year life of the contract; if the other 50% of power is sold on the same basis, it may add another $1.50 to that monthly bill.

Power production is estimated at 468 MW x 8,760 hr/yr x CF 0.39 = 1.6 GWh/yr. 

The capital cost is estimated at $2.0 billion, or $4,274/kW. Federal subsidies would be 30% as a grant.


Block Island Offshore Wind Project: The 28.4 MW Block Island Offshore Wind Project has a 20-yr PPA starting at $0.235/kWh in 2007 (base year), escalating at 3.5%/yr which means the 2027 price to the utility will be $0.468/kWh. A State of Rhode Island suit is pending to overturn the contract; the aim is to negotiate to obtain a lower price.

Power production is estimated at 28.4 MW x 8,760 hr/yr x CF 0.39 = 0.097 GWh/yr.

Capital cost is estimated at $121 million, or $4,274/kW. Federal subsidies would be 30% as a grant. 


Delaware Offshore Wind Project: The 200 MW Delaware Offshore Wind Project has a 25-year PPA starting at $0.0999/kWh in 2007 (base year), escalating at 2.5%/yr which means the 2032 price to the utility will be $0.185/kWh.

Power production is estimated at 200 MW x 8,760 hr/yr x CF 0.39 = 0.68 GWh/yr.

Capital cost is estimated at $855 million, or $4,274/kW. Federal subsidies would be 30% as a grant. 


Net Jobs From Renewables is a Hoax: RE promoters and politicians often tout job creation by RE projects, but do not mention the jobs lost in others sectors of the economy. 


Economists have used standard input-output analysis programs for at least 40 years to the determine the plusses and minuses of various economic activities. Numerous studies, using such economic analysis programs, performed in Spain, Italy, Denmark, England, etc., show for every job created in the RE sector, about 2 to 5 times jobs are destroyed in the other sectors. 


Also, for every 3 green jobs created in the private sector, 1 job is created in government, but, as a general rule, for every job created in government about 2 jobs are destroyed in the private sector, largely due to added economic inefficiencies; no one would claim government is more efficient than the private sector. In tabular format:


Total job gain from RE subsidies = 3 in RE sectors + 1 in government = 4.

Total job loss in private sector due to RE subsidies = 3 times (2 to 5), due to 3 RE jobs created + 2, due to 1 government job created = 8 to 17

Net job LOSS due to RE subsidies = (loss 8 to 17) – (gain 4) = 4 to 13 


Such job “creation” is unsustainable. Whether these government jobs are good or bad, needed or not needed, is irrelevant.


Note: This is not the case with increased energy efficiency subsidies. They create jobs in the EE sector, but also create a net increase of jobs in the other sectors, because the reduction of energy costs enables more spending on other goods and services.

Example of Job Shifting due to Subsidies: Under the Vermont SPEED program it will take about $230 million of scarce funds to build 50 MW of expensive renewables that produce just a little of variable, intermittent and expensive power that will make Vermont less efficient at exactly the time it needs to become more efficient.  


The VT-DPS evaluated the program in 2009 and issued a white paper which stated about 35% of the $228.4 million would be supplied by Vermont sources, the rest, mostly equipment by non-Vermont sources, such as wind turbines from Denmark and Spain, PV panels from China, inverters from Germany.


There would be spike of job creation during the 1-3 year construction stage (good for vendors) which would flatten to a permanent net gain of 13 full-time jobs (jobs are lost in other sectors) during the operation and maintenance stage. It gets worse. Under the SPEED program, these projects sell their energy to the grid at 3-5 times annual average grid prices for 20 years; the high-priced energy is “rolled” into a utilities energy mix, resulting in higher electric rates for households and businesses, higher prices of goods and services, fewer jobs, lower living standards.


Most of the larger SPEED projects are owned by the top 1% of households that work with lobbyists, politicians and financial advisers to obtain generous subsidies for their tax-sheltered LLC projects that produce expensive energy at high cost/kWh and avoid CO2 at high costs/lb of CO2; inefficient crony-capitalism under the guise of saving the world from global warming and climate change.


Example of Misuse of Public Funds: Efficiency Vermont is a quasi-government organization financed by about a 5% surcharge on people’s electric bills. Its 2009 budget was about $30 million. However, more than $20 million of the $30 million are expenses for payroll, office, travel, etc., of its 175 person staff, leaving only $10 million to do projects; not an efficient approach.


It would be more effective to use the $30 million/yr as DIRECT subsidies to the bottom 90% of households to make their houses (“cash for caulkers”) and their vehicles (“cash for klunkers”) more energy efficient; the lower the household income, the greater the incentives. 


it would quickly lead to a surge of renewal of thousands of houses, condos and apartments buildings providing many hundreds of jobs. This renewal would quickly lead to lower fuel bills, lower CO2 emissions, less need for fossil power plants and renewables systems, AND would quickly put money in the pockets of people, which they would quickly spend to stimulate the economy, which would quickly raise revenues to help balance Vermont’s budget. Imagine what the above $228.4 million would do if it were used for increased energy efficiency of buildings.


Renewables Subsidies Producing Winners and Losers: Financial advisors think the subsidy called Production Tax Credit, PTC, a 2.2 c/kWh government subsidy/donation, is a key element of the package of wind energy subsidies they need to sell wind energy tax shelters to high-income people (the top 1% that already has many such deals to avoid taxes) and profitable corporations.


Financial advisors would love to have another tool to sell their wares called National Renewable Portfolio Standard, NRPS. It would require utilities to purchase renewable energy no matter what the cost/kWh, whenever offered. The NRPS would be the ultimate kick in the teeth for households and businesses.


Financial advisors have prepared spreadsheets to demonstrate to their potential high-net-worth clients the estimated yearly cashflows of the tax shelter and tax savings. Such spreadsheets are useful to potential clients seeking a second opinion from their tax advisors before taking the nearly risk-free plunge. Some of these clients have to put up 5 to 10 million dollars, or more, to finance $100 million dollar wind turbine projects. The financial advisor makes a good commission. Without the PTC and other subsidies, the spreadsheets do not look so attractive to potential clients and the job of the financial advisor becomes more challenging.


After the required number of clients have been signed up for a wind turbine project, an LLC is set up, a 20-year contract is signed with a utility, and the partners of the LLC are all set for the next 20 years. That electric rates will rise faster than they would have without the expensive, variable and intermittent wind energy is not their concern. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, website lists thousands of renewable energy LLCs and their quarterly production.

The losers are the federal and state governments because they collect less taxes, the ratepayers paying more for electricity, the environment, and the people and animals living within about a mile of the wind turbines.


The winners are the financial advisors (GE, BP, Shell, Goldman-Sachs, etc.), the vendors (GE, Vestas, Iberdrola, etc.), the project developers and their LLC partners. They set up PACs and make campaign contributions to legislators, governors, etc., to essentially bribe them to support subsidies, or they may invisibly tie their family and friends into some of the LLCs, at a discount. 


We, the People, i.e., the rate paying losers, are finding it frustrating to overcome this circle of power. 


Electricity from wind is very high in true cost and very low in true value.




Because wind energy is variable and intermittent, it requires backup by quick-ramping, open cycle gas turbine generators that ramp up when wind energy ebbs and ramp down when it surges which occurs at least 100 times per day. Such part-load-ramping operation is inefficient and requires extra fuel/kWh and emits extra CO2/kWh. The extras offset a significant part of what wind energy was meant to reduce, as proven by studies of the Irish, Texas and Colorado grid operations data. The studies are based on 1/4-hour and 1-hour grid operations data.


Study of Irish Wind Energy: The Irish grid was selected for analysis, because Eirgrid, the grid operator, is one of the few that publishes the following real-time, 1/4-hr grid operations data:


– CO2 emissions, gram/kWh

– wind energy produced, GWh

– total energy produced, GWh 


Ireland’s Energy Generation: Ireland’s total electricity production was about 26,000 GWh in 2010. Gas-fired OCGTs and CCGTs provided about 65.5%, coal 13.2%, peat 8.2%, wind 9.8%, hydro 2.5% of which 1.7%, or 442 GWh, was impounded/run-of-river hydro. Ireland imports 100% of its coal, about 90% of its gas and produces 100% of its peat.


Wind Energy: In Ireland, good wind energy months are April, May, June, November and February.  On the west coast of Ireland, wind energy is greatest during summer daytimes, because of increased wind speeds as the lands warms up. The greater wind energy is coincides with greater daytime demands which is fortuitous. However, much of the energy needs to be transmitted to the east coast (line and transformer losses), as few people live on the west coast.


Coal/Peat: The below website shows coal/peat plants are base-loaded, i.e., not used for balancing wind energy, i.e., their CO2 emission intensities are essentially constant.


Hydro: Ireland has many small hydro plants and a few larger plants, such as the Ardnacrusha power plant, built 1929, capacity 85 MW, output 332 GWh/yr, Cathaleens Falls 45 MW, Poulaphuca 30 MW and Inniscarra 19 MW. The below website shows hydro plant outputs follow daily demand, i.e., not used for balancing wind energy.


The almost 40-year old, 292 MW Turlough Hill pumped-storage facility pumps to add to its upper reservoir during low nighttime demand and produces energy during peak daytime demand. Its net effect is to “flatten” the daily demand profile. It is not used for balancing wind energy. Currently, it operates at about 50% of capacity, because of ongoing modifications.  


Combined-Heat-Power: Ireland has about 195 units totaling about 282 MW of operating combined-heat-power, CHP, plants of which a few larger units totaling 248 MW is dedicated to industrial processes, such as food, manufacturing and pharmaceutical. The output of these units is independent of the weather.


CHP energy generation was 6.3% of Ireland’s total energy generation in 2008 (latest data). 

Only 11 CHP units (mostly associated with industrial processes) exported 1,013 GWh to the grid in 2008, or 1,013/260 = 3.9% of total production. Eirgrid includes the output and CO2/kWh of these units in its 1/4-hour data sets.


CHP heat generation was 4% of Ireland’s total heat generation in 2008 (latest data).


The above indicates CHP operations have no material impact on the 1/4-hour CO2/kWh posted by EirGrid.


OCGTs/CCGTs: A part of the OCGT/CCGT capacity serves base-load, follows daily demand, provides peaking power and performs voltage and frequency regulation. It also performs wind energy balancing, if it has sufficient spare ramping range to ramp down with smaller wind energy surges and ramp up with smaller wind energy ebbs.


Because larger wind energy surges and ebbs are unpredictable, additional OCGT/CCGT capacity needs to be in spinning and part-load-ramping mode for balancing wind energy; the greater the wind energy, the greater the additional  spinning and balancing capacity. 


Because of much degraded heat rates, gas turbines are rarely operated below 40% of their rated output which limits their ramping range from 40 to 100 percent of rated output.


How EirGrid Calculates CO2 Emissions/kWh: The following is a direct quote from the EirGrid website:


“EirGrid, with the support of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, has developed together the following methodology for calculating CO2 Emissions.


The rate of carbon emissions is calculated in real time by using the generators MW output, the individual heat rate curves for each power station and the calorific values for each type of fuel used.


The heat rate curves are used to determine the efficiency at which a generator burns fuel at any given time.


The fuel calorific values are then used to calculate the rate of carbon emissions for the fuel being burned by the generator“


Grid operators know the heat rate curves of the plants on their grids which were obtained by testing. They need to know this for economic dispatch.


Eirgrid takes the percent of rated output each plant is operated at and multiplies it by the heat rate for that output percentage (from the above mentioned heat rate curve) to calculate the fuel consumption/kWh and CO2 emissions/kWh every 1/4 hour. It posts the grid CO2 intensity (CO2 emissions of all plants/total kWh produced by all plants) as gram CO2/kWh on its website every 1/4 hour.


The EirGrid CO2 emissions/kWh are understated, because they do not account for the extra CO2 emissions due to:


– Increased spinning plant operation; extra fuel and CO2

– Increased start/stop operations; extra fuel and CO2

– Increased ramping operation; less efficient, extra fuel and CO2

– less than optimum scheduling of generating units for balancing wind energy


Note: In my discussions about the Udo study, Mr. O’Sullivan, energy systems analyst of Eirgrid, confirmed: 


– Eirgrid does not account for degradation of heat rates due to up/down ramping, and for starting/stopping of units, i.e., EirGrid’s 1/4-hour data understate the CO2 emissions/kWh. 

– CO2 emissions reduction is secondary, as there are other reasons for building out wind energy, such as the Brussels’ mandated renewable energy percentages that provide Ireland with subsidies for wind turbine facilities.

– Ireland wants to reduce its fuel imports and increase its wind energy exports to Britain.


Changed Operations of Generating Units due to Wind Energy: A greater wind energy percent on the grid requires a greater capacity of generators to be in starting/stopping mode (which is less efficient), in spinning mode (which produces no energy, but emits CO2, as an idling car), in decreased part-load mode (which is less efficient), and in part-load-ramping mode (which is less efficient). The net result is increased fuel consumption/kWh and CO2 emissions/kWh of the fossil units that significantly offsets the fuel and CO2 emissions that wind energy was meant to reduce.


Nevertheless, wind energy promoters usually claim (without any measurements) one MWh of “clean” wind energy offsets one MWh of “dirty” fossil fuel energy and its associated CO2, i.e., a 1 : 1 ratio. 


However, analysis of the November 2010 to August 2011 EirGrid grid operations data shows that at a wind energy penetration of 12.6%, the average efficiency of reducing CO2 emissions is about 70%, i.e., a ratio 1 : 0.7, for that 10-month period.

See Table 5 in


This ratio would be further reduced to about 1 : 0.6, or less, if the CO2 emissions from increased spinning and start/stop operations, efficiency decreases due to ramping, and less than optimum scheduling of generating units were included. 

See Figure 2 in


Note: Ratios of 1 : 0.6, or less, may occur, if coal plants of grids dominated by energy from coal, as in Texas, Colorado, etc., are quick-ramped for balancing wind energy, which may destabilize their combustion control systems causing extra fuel consumption, CO2 emissions and NOx emissions/kWh, and destabilize their air quality control systems causing extra particulate and SOx emissions/kWh.


The above ratios are not anywhere near the 1: 1 ratio claimed by wind energy promoters. The above variations of the CO2 percentages are largely due to the heat rates, Btu/kWh, of the combinations of CCGTs and OCGTs selected by the grid operator during wind energy balancing. 


The fit lines of the scatter diagrams of CO2 intensity, gram/kWh, versus wind energy, %, show increasing CO2 emissions/kWh as wind energy percent increases. Where the fit line intersects the Y-axis, i.e., no wind energy, is the lowest CO2 emissions/kWh.


This appears entirely reasonable to power system engineers who know the more their power generators are operated in part-load-ramping mode, the less efficient they become and the less efficient the whole grid becomes.


Just as a car, if operated at 20 mph, then accelerated to 50 mph and back down again a few hundred times during a 24-hour trip would use more gas and pollute more, so would the balancing CCGTs and OCGTs. However, gas turbines have even greater degradations of heat rates, Btu/kWh, when operating in part-load-ramping mode than gasoline engines. The extra fuel consumed and extra CO2 emitted by the gas turbines are so much that they mostly offset what wind energy was meant to reduce. 


Note:  Ratios of 1 : 0.95 may occur, If hydro plants are quick-ramped for balancing wind energy, as in Norway and Sweden which absorb most of Danish wind energy in excess of Danish demand, thereby maintaining their reservoirs at higher levels than they would have been. Other than the CO2 emissions associated with transmission losses, little additional CO2 emissions occur due to wind energy balancing.


The analysis of the EirGrid data also found:


– the greater the wind energy percent on the grid, the lower the ratio, i.e., adding more wind energy becomes less and less effective for CO2 emissions reduction

– at very high wind energy percent on the grid, the ratio will ultimately go to zero and then become negative, i.e., adding more wind energy to the grid will INCREASE CO2 emissions.

See Figure 1 in


In general, for grids with low ANNUAL wind energy percent, such as the 0.6% on the New England grid, the ratio is about 0.95 during greater wind speed periods. The ratio will decrease as more wind energy is added to the grid.


The above study results could only be determined because EirGrid publishes real-time, 1/4- hour grid operations data. Almost all grid operators HAVE those data, but do not publish them because:


– They are not required to, or they do not want to.

– Wind turbine owners claim their data are proprietary.

– Wind turbine owners have lobbied legislatures to maintain the “do-not-tell” status quo.


Because the real-time, 1/4-hr data is generally lacking, it became possible for government leaders and wind energy promoters to make unrealistic CO2 emissions reduction claims, such as the 1 : 1 ratio, using studies based on estimates, probabilities, algorithms, assumptions, grid operations modeling, weather and wind speed forecasts, etc., and thereby maintain a spell of deception and delusion regarding the claimed CO2 emission reduction benefits of wind energy.


The deception: The above shows that too many renewable energy certificates, RECs, are being granted to wind energy producers than is warranted based on their actual CO2 emissions reduction. 


The delusion: The lay public has been led to believe by government leaders and wind energy promoters that wind energy is “fighting climate change and global warming”. It turns out the net effect is much less.


Additional References Showing a Lack of CO2 Emissions Reductions:


Bentek Energy LLC, How Less Became More: Wind, Power and Unintended Consequences in the Colorado Energy Market,


Institute for Energy Research, June 2010:


Argonne National Laboratory, System-Wide Emissions Implications of Increased Wind Power Penetration, March 5, 2012;


Argonne National Laboratory, Grid realities cancel out some of wind power’s carbon savings, May 29, 2012;


Forbes, Wind Power May Not Reduce Carbon Emissions As Expected: Argonne, May 30, 2012;


Aol Energy, A Brave New World: Renewable Energy Without Subsidies, June 6, 2012;


Bloomberg, Renewable-Power Boom Leaves Nations Without Backup, Report Shows, June 8, 2012;


Climate Wire, Renewable Energy: Wind power may not reduce carbon emissions as expected, June 1, 2012;




Shift Subsidies From Renewables to EE: Doing energy efficiency first and renewables later is the most economical way to go; especially important when funds are scarce. Governments providing huge subsidies for renewables BEFORE doing a great deal more in energy efficiency may be politically expedient, but it is costly and unwise; akin to putting the cart BEFORE the horse. 


It would be much wiser, and more economical, to shift subsidies away from expensive renewables, that produce just a little of expensive, variable, intermittent energy, towards increased EE. Those renewables would not be needed, if the funds are used for increased EE. 


Doing RE first (there are all these subsidies) and EE later is like pouring water into a leaking bucket.


EE is the low-hanging fruit, has not scratched the surface, is by far the best approach, because it provides the quickest and biggest “bang for the buck”, and 


– it is invisible

– it does not make noise

– it does not destroy pristine ridge lines/upset mountain water runoffs

– it would reduce CO2, NOx, SOx and particulates more effectively than renewables

– it would not require expensive, highly-visible build-outs of transmission systems

– it would slow electric rate increases

– it would slow fuel cost increases

– it would not lower property values

– it would not harm people’s health

– it would slow depletion of fuel resources

– it would create 3 times the jobs and reduce 3-5 times the Btus and CO2 per invested dollar than renewables

– all the technologies are fully developed

– it would end the subsidizing of renewables tax-shelters benefitting mostly for the top 1% at the expense of the other 99%

– it would be more democratic/equitable

– it would do all this without public resistance and controversy.

Effective CO2 Emission Reduction Policy: Pres. Andrew Jackson, Democrat, populist: “When government subsidizes, the well-connected benefit the most”. Effective CO2 policy requires all households to be involved with reducing CO2, not just the top 5% of households which benefit the most from the existing, rather elitist subsidies, such as grants, low interest loans and tax shelters for a PV solar systems and wind turbine facilities. 


Effective CO2 emission reduction policy requires that all households eagerly participate. Subsidies for electric vehicles, residential and industrial wind turbines, PV solar and geothermal systems benefit mostly the top 5% of households that pay enough taxes to take advantage of the renewables tax credits, while all other households are required to pay for them by means of fees, taxes and higher electric rates; the net effect is much cynicism and little CO2 reduction.


Improved energy efficiency policy would provide much greater opportunities to many more lower-income households to significantly reduce their CO2 emissions. 


Benefits of Energy Efficiency: Strict, ENFORCED, statewide energy codes for NEW building construction should be enacted. The codes should be performance-based. Monitoring compliance should include in-progress state and/or local inspections and testing during construction, as is done by other modern nations.


Energy Efficiency:


– will make the US more competitive, increase exports and reduce the trade balance.


– usually have simple payback periods of 6 months to 5 years.


– typically has a much longer useful service life than the about 20 years of wind turbines and the about 25 years of PV panels. 


– reduce the need for expensive and highly visible transmission and distribution systems.


– reduce 2 to 5 times the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and create 2 to 3 times more jobs than renewables per dollar invested; no studies, research, demonstration and pilot plants will be required. 


– have minimal or no pollution, are invisible and quiet, something people really like.


– are by far the cleanest energy development anyone can engage in; they often are quick, cheap and easy.


– use materials, such as for taping, sealing, caulking, insulation, windows, doors, refrigerators, water heaters, furnaces, fans, air conditioners, etc., that are almost entirely made in the US. They represent about 30% of a project cost, the rest is mostly labor. About 70% of the materials cost of expensive renewables is imported, such as PV panels from China, inverters from Germany, wind turbines from Denmark and Spain, the rest of the materials cost is miscellaneous items.


– will quickly reduce CO2 at the lowest cost per dollar invested, AND make the economy more efficient in many areas which will raise living standards, or prevent them from falling further. 


– if done before renewables, will reduce the future capacities and capital costs of renewable systems. 






A 100-watt incandescent light bulb, ON for an hour, uses about (100 x 3.413 Btu/ mine-to-light bulb efficiency) = 1,706.5 Btu/hr of SOURCE energy, such as coal, gas and nuclear. Gas has about 1,000 Btu/cu ft, coal about 10,000 Btu/lb. 


Incandescent 100-W bulb produces 5 W of light, 95 W of heat

CFL 20 W of light, 80 W of heat

HID 40 W of light, 60 W of heat

LED 15 W of light, 85 W of heat

Fluorescent and halogen 8.3 W of light, 91.7 W of heat. 


Incandescent 15 Lumens/W

CFL 60 L/W 

HID up to 120 L/W

LED 45 L/W

Fluorescent and halogen 25 L/W


Abbrevs: Compact Fluorescent Lamp, CFL; High Intensity Discharge, HID; Light Emitting Diode, LED


Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) and Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) 


SIPs: Sips are used for walls and roofs. They have a layer of closed cell foam between two 1/2″ OSBs; the thicker the foam, the higher the R-value. Three foams are in use: most common is expanded polystyrene (EPS), R-3.85/inch; second is polyurethane and polyisocyanurate (PUR), R-6.76/inch and third is extruded polystyrene (XPS), R-5/inch. 


Winter Panel, Brattleboro, VT, has EPS and PUR SIPs rated R-25 to R-38. They are 4 or 8 ft wide varying from 8 to 24 ft long. 


Murus, Mansfield , PA, has EPS SIPs rated R-16 to R-45, PUR SIPs rated R-26 to R-40 and XPS SIPs rated R-19 to R-58. They are 4 or 8 ft wide varying from 4 to 24 ft long. 


RAY-CORE, Idaho Falls, Idaho, has 2×4, 2×6 and 2×8 SIP panels rated R-26, R-42, and R-52, respectively. Its factory-built panels are similar to stud walls but with sprayed foam insulation between the studs and reflective foil-facing on both sides. They are 4′ wide and 8′, 10′ and 12′ long. 


ICFs: ICFs are mostly used for concrete basements but can be used to construct an entire house. The forms consist of two foam sections that are held about 8″ apart with plastic braces; the thicker the foam the higher the R-value. The ICFs lock together into walls, similar to LEGO blocks. After placing reinforcing steel, concrete is poured between the foam sections to form walls. Because of its large concrete thermal mass, the temperature in an ICF house varies little and slowly with outdoor temperature changes. 


Quad-lock, Surrey, B.C., has ICFs rated at R-22, R-32 and R-40 


Construction with SIPs and ICFs can reduce house energy use by more than 50%, making it easy to qualify for ENERGY STAR and a low HERS rating. SIPs and ICFs perform better because they do not have the voids, gaps, and compression of fiberglas and cellulose insulation in stud walls. SIP and ICF houses are significantly more airtight than houses with stud walls. The foam core of SIP panels function as a complete air barrier, and working with large panels means there are fewer joints to seal. 


Studies by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) show that when whole wall R-value is measured, SIPs and ICFs far outperform wood framed walls. ORNL evaluations of a SIP test room revealed it to be 14 times more airtight than an equivalent room with 2×6 construction, sheathing, fiberglas insulation and drywall. For ENERGY STAR rating purposes, the EPA does not require a blower door test for houses built with SIPs and ICFs. 


Passing the required Thermal Bypass Checklist is practically automatic when building with SIPs and ICFs. Properly installed SIPs and ICFs provide the whole-house air barrier that the checklist requires, and if a SIP roof is used as well, additional areas of air leakage are avoided. 




Skylights usually are installed without insulation on the outside of the frame of the unit and on the outside of the light shaft. As a result heat loss is significant. The overall R-value will be less than 0. If the unit and light shaft were covered with 4″ of blueboard, the overall R value would be at least 3.


It would be better to have a shed dormer instead of a skylight; dormers can be insulated to R-40, or better. Only the dormer windows would be R-3, or better. 


Building and Insulating an R-40 Room


An addition to a Vermont house was built where a patio used to be: 


– The loose-lying patio stones were removed, a 10” layer of soil was removed, plastic was placed on the soil; all seams taped with Tyvec tape. 

– On the plastic was placed 3 layers of 4’x8’x2” sheets of 25 psi blueboard; all seams taped with Tyvec tape. 

– On the blueboard was poured a 4”, steel-reinforced, concrete slab. 

– The blueboard extends 10” beyond the slab on three sides. 

– Each wall, a 9″ thick sandwich of 2 sheets of 1/2” pressure treated plywood and 4 layers of 2”, 25 psi blueboard held together by long screws, is placed on the 10″ blueboard extension.

– All interior and exterior openings and seams and window nailing flanges are sealed with Tyvec tape and sprayfoam; no cold or warm air must get inside the walls to make them feel warm or cold.

– The ceiling is a sandwich of 2 sheets of 1/2” CDX plywood and 4 layers of 2”, 25 psi blueboard, plus another layer of 2”, 25 psi blueboard; all openings and seams taped with Tyvec tape and sprayfoam.

– The exterior surface of the blueboard under the slab is covered with an 18″ wide strip of PT plywood that is stained with a solid color stain similar to concrete; restain the PT every 5 years.

– The PT strip is about 10″ above grade and 8″ below grade.

– The soil is sloped away from the room and backfilled with 3/4″ crushed stone to a depth of about 12″ x 2′ wide to ensure the PT stays dry.


Result: The 200-sq ft room is heated with a 500W, thermostatically-controlled, electric heater about 400 hours per year. Its indoor temperature varies only a few degrees with variations from -30F in winter to 95F in summer. 


Building and Insulating a Walkout Boxbay


A walkout boxbay was added to a living room to accommodate a 2’-6” x 5’ desk. It has Anderson casement windows (R-3). The floor and ceiling have 6” of blueboard (R-30). The walls have 3” of poly-iso-cyanurate (Thermax). The outside of the structure is entirely covered with 1” Thermax over which are applied PVC trim and cedar siding (walls are R-25 total). All inside and outside seams were taped and caulked as construction proceeded to avoid cold or warm air entering the walls.


Insulating a New Concrete Basement and a New House


The most important design features are: 


– having no areas with low R-values (thermal shorts)  

– sealing to prevent infiltration of cold or warm air into the walls, especially around windows, doors and skylights.  


Basement wall: By far the easiest way to insulate a new basement and a new house is to first pour the concrete footing with achor bolts. Then cut sheets of 2’x 8’ x 2” thick, 100 psi blueboard (special order from Home Depot) into 8” wide strips and place 2 layers on the footing where the 8” basement wall will be located. The anchor bolts should be at least 12” long; 4” in the footing, 4” through the blueboard and 4” into the basement wall. Then set the forms and pour the basement walls on top of the blueboard.


Note: A concrete basement wall about 9’ tall x 8” thick weighs about 900 lbs/linear foot and exerts a pressure of about 900/(8 x 12) = 9.4 psi on the blueboard. The rest of the house exerts about 3-4 psi, for a total of 12.4 -13.4 psi. The blueboard is rated at 100 psi.


Basement floor: Place plastic sheeting on the soil, tape the seams, and cover with 2 layers of 4’x8’x2″ thick, 25 psi blueboard (readily available) before pouring the 4″ concrete floor.


The next step is to frame out the house in the conventional way, either 2×6 or 2×4 construction, but add a 2’ kneewall (in the attic above the ceiling joists) on which the roof will be resting. Then use 4’x8’x2” thick, 25 psi blueboard and apply two layers to the OUTSIDE from the basement footing to the roof soffit. 


Then apply 1/2” pressure-treated plywood from the footing to about 2’ above grade and 1/2” CDX plywood, or OSB, to the roof soffit, using 6” galvenized or coated screws. Then seal all seams and openings from the outside with TYVEK tape and sprayfoam. Then finish the house in the conventional manner; rough plumbing, rough wiring, fiberglass insulation, cover the inside frame with plastic sheeting and tape all INSIDE seams and openings around sockets, etc., cover with sheetrock. 


Apply a good quality solid color stain (can be mixed to the color of concrete) on the exposed PT plywood every 5 years. The PT plywood on my house is 25 years old, has been stained 5 times and is still in as new condition.


Place 9.5” of unfaced fiberglass insulation between the 2”x10” ceiling joists AND place another 9.5” of fiberglass insulation crosswise on top of the joists; the 2’ kneewall allows for easier and more effective placement of the insulation.


Result: The 1,100 sq ft basement is heated with a 10,000 Btu/hr output, thermostat-controlled, propane heater about 400 hours per year. Its indoor temperature varies only a few degrees with significant variations of outdoor temperature throughout the year. 


At least a 70% reduction in space heating and cooling costs per year for the life of the house. Additional reduction of energy consumption can be achieved by efficient windows, doors, appliances and lighting and an 85% efficient air-to-air heat exchanger. Because the house is tightly sealed, positive ventilation at about 0.5 air changes per hour is required.


Heat Loss from a 2006 IECC Reference Home on a Cold, Windy Day 


Infiltration rates for most houses are primarily driven by the pressure difference (delta p) due to the stack effect in the house and the higher pressure on the windward side relative to the leeward side of the house. The natural delta p on mild windless days = 0.1 Pa – 0.3 Pa, on cold windy days = 20 Pa or more. ACH varies according to the square root of delta p. If ACH @ 50 Pa = 8, then it equals V20/V50 x 8 = 5 ACH @ 20 Pa.


The heat loss on cold windy days = 5 ACH x 11,688 cu ft house volume x 0.075 lb/cu ft x 0.24 air specific heat x (68F – 20F) = 50,492 Btu/hr, equivalent to about 50% of the furnace output. An equivalent size house designed to the much stricter Passivhaus standard would have a heat loss of 1,010 Btu/hr on a cold windy day. See Passivhaus below. 


The above shows the 8 ACH @ 50 Pa of the 2006 IECC Reference Home and the 7 ACH @ 50 Pa of the 2009 IECC Reference Home are grossly inadequate. In the future ACH = 1, or less, @ 50 Pa is needed to significantly improve energy efficiency.


However, various interest groups, such as the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), are opposed to stricter ACH standards because it would require major changes in the construction of housing. Houses with wood frame walls are difficult to build to have ACH = 1, or less, @ 50 Pa. Few members of the NAHB are ready for these changes. See SIPs and ICFs below. 


Heat Loss Reduction by Superinsulating and Sealing an Existing House 


A house, 80 years old, 2-family, 2-story, 3,000 sq ft total, located in Arlington, Massachusetts, was selected to demonstrate the energy reduction that can be achieved by superinsulating, etc. The house was in need of new roofing and siding. Fuel oil consumption for space heating and hot water was about 2,500 gal/yr.


The project cost was about $100,000, of which $50,000 was donated by the state and participating vendors and contractors, which benefitted from the publicity. After improvements the fuel oil consumption for heating and hot water is about 800 gal/yr, for a saving of 68%.


Whereas the payback will be several decades, the house will be more comfortable, and just as the Toyota Prius market value went up when gas was $4/gal, as will the market value of superinsulated houses go up in the future which will greatly shorten the payback period. 


– The existing roof was R-25. To obtain an R-60 roof, existing roof shingles were removed, 2 layers of styrofoam, 7″ total, were added. All seams were taped. Roof reshingled and retrimmed. 

– The existing walls were R-13. To obtain R-33 walls, existing clapboards were removed, 2 layers of styrofoam, 4″ total, were added. All seams were taped. Walls reclapboarded and retrimmed. 

– Existing windows were replaced with double-pane energy efficient windows 

– Existing exterior doors were replaced with foamcore doors 

– Heat recovery ventilation system was installed to ensure fresh air 

– Carbon monoxide monitors were installed 


A future project could be insulating the interior basement walls. 


Near-Zero-Energy Housing Development in Massachusetts 


The RDI designed Wisdom Way Solar Village is a development of 20 super insulated, 2-story, 1,400 sq ft houses with roof-mounted PV and solar hot water systems, located near the center of Greenfield, MA, priced at $210,000 – $240,000; HERS = 7 – 17 


A state subsidy allowed 16 of the houses to be sold to low and medium income households at about $110,000; an example of Massachusetts helping low income households. 


A typical 2-story, three-bedroom house in the development has a heating load of 12,600 Btu/hr when the outside temperature is 2F. It has the following features: 


– Southern orientation, open floor plan, 1,392 sq ft of heated space above an unheated full basement 

– Roof-mounted 3.4 kW PV system generates about 4,000 kWh/yr and provides for most of the electricity use 

– Roof-mounted 87 sq ft solar hot water system with 105-gal storage tank provides for most of the hot water use 

– Building envelope ACH = 2 or less @ 50 Pascals  

– Recycled blown-in dry cellulose encircling the building envelope: 12 inches in the offset double 2×4 walls, R-42; 14 inches in the ceilings, R-52; 11 inches in the basement ceiling, R-38 

– High efficiency windows north, east, and west; U = 0.18, Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) = 0.26, Visible Light Transmission (VLT) = 0.42 

– High efficiency windows south; U = 0.26, SHGC = 0.36, VLT = 0.53 

– Continuous 50 CFM exhaust ventilation 

– ENERGY STAR refrigerator, dishwasher, and clothes washer (plus natural gas cook stove and clothes dryer) 

– Compact fluorescent light bulbs, CFLs, throughout 

– On-demand natural gas hot water heater as back up to solar hot water system 

– Sealed combustion Monitor room heater in the central living area on the first floor (no fossil fuel-based central heating system is necessary) 

– No air conditioning 

– Air distribution system to move air and heat from the first floor to the second floor bedrooms. The ducts for this system, as well as the vent fans, are sealed with mastic; duct tape deteriorates with time. 


Near-Zero-Energy Housing in Germany


The Passivhaus standard was developed in Germany in 1988. The Passivhaus Institut was founded in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1996. Over 20,000 Passivhauses have been built since the early 90s, mostly in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia. 


After some decades of experience, the cost of building to the Passivhaus standard is now only an additional 5% to 7%. Passivhaus builds the walls and roof as much as possible in the factory, ships them to the site, and has certified builders erect and finish the house. The insulation, plumbing, wiring, etc., are pre-installed as much as possible. Connections are made in the field.


There are over 30 German suppliers of Passivhaus specified walls, roofs, windows, doors, heat exchangers, duct systems, etc. They are a part of Germany’s Efficient Buildings industry that provides market-tested products and services. 


Passivhaus Design Criteria: 


– Less than 15 kWh/sq m/yr, or 4,746 Btu/sq ft/yr for space heating 

– Less than 15 kWh/sq m/yr, or 4,746 Btu/sq ft/yr for space cooling 

– Less than 42 kWh/sq m/yr, or 13,289 Btu/sq ft/yr for space heating and cooling, hot water, electricity 

– Less than 120 kWh/sq m/yr, or 37,969 Btu/sq ft/yr as primary energy. This standard requires the use of energy efficient electrical appliances, heating and cooling systems, etc. 

– Insulation minimum for concrete basement or slab R-40, walls R-40 and roof R-60 

– Windows are fiberglass-frame, triple-pane, argon or krypton-filled, low-e, U = 0.14 or less 

– ACH = 0.6 or less @ 50 Pa below atmospheric pressure, as measured in a standard blower door test. This requirement is about 12 times more strict than for the 2006 and 2009 IECC Reference Homes 

– Energy recovery ventilator, at least 85% efficient, to provide a constant, balanced fresh air supply via a duct system 

– Electric resistant heater element, a maximum of 10 W/sq m, or 0.93 W/sq ft, in the duct system to provide auxiliary heat on very cold days 

– HEPA filter (optional) to remove particulate 1 micron or larger, i.e., germs, dander, viruses, air pollutants, etc. 



1. In Germany a “Niedrigenergiehaus” uses less than 50 kWh/sq m/yr, or 15,850 Btu/sq ft/yr for space heating. 

2. In Switzerland a “Minenergiehaus” uses less than 42 kWh/sq m/yr, or 13,289 Btu/sq ft/yr for space heating. 

3. Primary energy is unconverted energy; i.e., energy to make electricity, uncombusted fuel, etc. 

4. Anderson, Marvin and Pella windows are wood-frame, double-pane, low-e, U = 0.32; they lose twice the heat lost by Passivhaus windows. Thermatech windows, fiberglass-frame, triple-pane, argon-filled, low-e, U = 0.17.

Serious Windows, fiberglass-frame, triple suspended films between two glass panes. U = 0.09 – 0.13, VT = 0.30 – 0.39, SHGC = 0.20 – 0.26 

Therma-Tru fiberglass or steel doors, polyurethane core, R-10.

5. 1 atmosphere = 101,325 Pascals = 406.8 inches of water = 10,333 mm of water; thus 50 Pa = 5.1 mm of water = 0.2 inch of water. 


Simplified Calculation of a Passivhaus Heat Loss and Heat Gain 


Example: an approximately 1,600 sq. ft. Passivhaus on a concrete slab, R-40; 1st floor walls, R-40; 4 ft knee wall on the 2nd floor, R-40; 2nd floor has 45 degree cathedral ceilings, R-60. Inside ambient 68F, at cathedral ceiling 73F, outside 20F, soil under slab 50F. Air-to-air heat exchanger eff. = 80 %. 


House volume = 9,792 + 4,896 = 11,688 cu ft 

Slab heat loss = 1/40 x 24 x 34 x (68 – 50) = 367 Btu/hr 

First floor walls heat loss = 1/40 x 2 x 9 x (24 + 34) x (68 – 20) = 1,253 Btu/hr 

Knee walls heat loss = 1/40 x 2 x 4 x (24 + 34) x (68 – 20) = 557 Btu/hr 

Roof heat loss = 1/60 x 2 x 1.41 x 12 x 34 x (73 – 20) = 1,046 Btu/hr 

Forced ventilation heat loss at 0.5 ACH = 0.5 x 0.075 x 0.24 x 11,688 x 0.20 x (68 – 20) = 1,010 Btu/hr 

Total heat loss = 4,233 Btu/hr 


Two people heat gain = 2 x 397 = 794 Btu/hr 

Electrical appliances, computers, lights, etc., heat gain = 0.5 kW x 3,413 = 1,707 Btu/hr 

Total heat gain = 794 + 1707 = 2,501 Btu/hr 


Heat loss – heat gain = 4,233 – 2,501 = 1,732 Btu/hr which can be provided by a 1.5 kW hairdryer- size heater in the ventilation system even on the coldest days. 


– Solar heat gain through windows and cooking heat gain were not considered 

– A 3 kW PV system and an 80 sq ft solar hot water system would provide for most of the electrical and hot water use 


Actual experience by a Passivhaus homeowner: During a power outage for several winter days, the ambient temperature in the house did not drop below 60F. When cooking with a gas range it rose to 62F and when the sun shone it soon became 70F while the outside temperature was 20F. 


Annual Energy Use for Heating, Cooling and Electricity of Inefficient Government Buildings 


NY State Office Building Campus/SUNY-Albany Campus; average 186,000 Btu/sq ft/yr. Source: a study I did in the 80s. 

Vermont State Government buildings; average 107,000 Btu/sq ft/yr.

Not much can be done with such buildings other than taking them down to the steel structure and start over. 


Annual Energy Use for Heating, Cooling and Electricity of Efficient Corporate Buildings 


Building energy demand management using smart metering, smart buildings (including increased insulation and sealing, efficient windows and doors, entries with airlocks, variable speed motors, automatic shades on the outside of windows, Hitachi high efficiency absorption chillers, plate heat exchangers, task lighting, passive solar, etc.) were used in the Xerox Headquarters Building, Stamford, CT, designed in 1975 by Syska & Hennessey, a leading US engineering firm.


Result: The energy intensity is 28,400 Btu/sq ft/yr for heating, cooling and electricity, which compares with 50,000 Btu/sq ft/yr, or greater, for nearby standard headquarters buildings. Source: a study I did in the 80s. 


France and Germany are building high-rise office buildings that average less than 10,000 Btu/sq ft/yr. 


China is building net-zero-energy, high-rise office buildings designed by Skidmore, Owens, Merrill, a leading US architect-engineering firm in Chicago, Illinois. 








Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 19, 2011

Passivhaus and net-zero energy homes that explore the limits of efficiency technology are great education and PR tools.   However, building codes must be written so that they don’t burden the poor or the economy.  

This means that the mortgage payment on the last dollar spent on efficiency must be completely offset by energy savings, using reasonable assumptions about interest rates and future energy costs (i.e. a rigorous definition of “pay for themselves”).  No doubt some technologies (high efficiency windows, doors, and appliances; weather stripping; etc for new construction) meet this criteria.  

But some concepts listed above clearly will not “pay for themselves”:  solar PV panels, replacing walls on 80 year old houses, and perhaps using 19″ insulation instead of 9.5″ in the ceiling.

I’m also surprised you did not mention geothermal heatpumps for efficiently heating air and water from electricity (these can deliver 4 times the heat for the same electrical input as resistive heaters).  We can make all the clean electricity we want using nuclear power, but for cars, boats, and airplanes we need liquid fuel.  It seems a shame to waste liquid fuel heating a home.

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