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Energy Efficiency Becomes Key Consideration in Affordable Housing

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The economic gap between the haves and the have nots has grown recently. As a result, more than 500,000 individuals are homeless in the US.  Energy is one of the larger bills that most families face. So, government agencies, like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), are focusing on improving energy efficiency in affordable housing.

Housing is a major energy consumer. In 2021, it accounted for 21% of the US energy use, according to NREL. As a result, energy is a major part of most home budgets. US households spent $230 billion on energy to heat, cool, light, and live in their homes last year.

There is no doubt that the recent rise in inflation and gas prices is making it more difficult for families to pay their bills. The changes hit low income home especially hard because they have a small cushion for unexpected increases.

Taking a Close Look at Building Construction

Recently, NREL extended its net-zero building research and began examining construction processes, advanced materials, and business practices and relating them to energy equity, Why? The nation already had a critical shortage of affordable housing. Rather than treat energy costs and housing as two separate challenges, the government agency tried to connect the two. By designing energy efficiency programs that serve affordable housing, government eases the energy burden for families while taking significant steps toward meeting their energy efficiency goals.

The next question is how can government link the two? NREL worked closely with the U.S. Department of Energy to develop framework and a suite of tools that evaluate housing design and identify cost-optimal efficiency steps. 

One area gaining tracking is Adaptable Building Systems. They decouple the structural frame from the building envelope. Interchangeable panels slide into the structural frame, such as vacuum insulated panels, solar panels, windows, and other intelligent facades, making it easier to upgrade to new technologies as they mature.

NREL’s Blokable project creates a vertically integrated building system. Energy efficiency, quality, and livability are integrated into every stage of the housing development, construction, and ownership. The prefabricated construction should lower building pricing and increase efficiency.

Innovative Efficiency Solutions

The agency forged a partnership with Wells Fargo to launch an Innovation Incubator (IN2), a cleantech incubator for startup companies. Comanaged by NREL, the newbies are starting to bring their products to market.

7AC developed a heat exchanger and liquid desiccant technology for HVAC systems. The solution provides better energy efficiency and air quality than current products. The product helps building owners more easily manage the humidity, temperature, purity, and distribution of air.

Span, another IN2 start up developed he Shell Gamechanger Accelerator. The smart electric panel allows consumers to control their homes’ energy use and to integrate renewable sources and energy storage more easily into home power systems.

Traditionally, affordable housing and energy efficiency were two separate items. With the recent economic shift, NREL has begun linking the two. A few solutions are starting to make their way from the laboratory to the market, providing utilities with tools to spur development of low income, energy efficient buildings.  

 

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