There's something terrifying happening to our planet that will have a greater impact on mankind than anything else in history. Climate change is one of the preeminent environmental issues of our time, and a deep understanding of this problem is vital for everyone on Earth. The single biggest challenge we will face in our future is adequate energy for the exponentially growing world population. Imagine coming home after a long day and it's pitch black, so you flip the light switch, but nothing happens. You're hungry, so you throw food in the oven, but it doesn't turn on. You decide you want to go see a movie, so you head down to your car, turn the key in the ignition, but again there is no power. We all take energy for granted as the population of our world is growing to counts never imagined. This is leading and will continue to lead to severe consequences if we don't manage this conundrum properly. Think of all the conversations that transpire for world hunger, clean water, lack of fertile land, etc. While these are all major problems, there's something that will likely have a more profound impact on mankind. Without adequate energy, there will be a shortage of clean water, healthy food, building materials for shelter, etc. with inevitable wars stemming from the shortage of those basic life needs.
There may be a viable solution. As an environmental and renewable energy advocate that is entering a career in geospatial analytics and planning, I have a keen interest in sustainable, energy efficient buildings and landscapes. Thankfully, Virginia Tech and my experiences coming from positions in government and planning firms have exposed me to these major engineering challenges at a relatively young age. From my best interpretation, there are three primary options when it comes to solving this energy conundrum:
• Option 1: Continue with what we are doing. Under this option, we will use more fossil fuels, which will lead to an increase in pollution and more cities will begin to have poor air quality. This is not a good option.
• Option 2: Use hazardous energy producing means such as nuclear. This will leave us with an immense amount of dangerous nuclear waste with long half-lives of tens of thousands of years and is extremely dangerous for human health with a high risk of catastrophe. Investing in risky or toxic types of energy production not the best solution either.
• Option 3: Our best solution is to completely shift society’s outlook on energy production and consumption. We can't keep up with the exponentially growing population by only becoming more energy efficient. The best way to create energy is to conserve it too, as in, not using it if it was otherwise wasted. We can solve the problem by reducing/eliminating our demand from the grid. The solution to solve this global energy conundrum is net-zero energy.
A critical component to making this transition is identifying the biggest culprit of energy consumption. What do you think uses more energy on a yearly basis: 1,000 cars or one medium sized hospital building? The answer is hospital buildings. Buildings alone actually use more energy than trucks, trains, planes, ships, and all other forms of transportation based off of energy end-use. This fact is not specifying the breakdown of fuel source or GHG emissions contribution. Transportation typically receives the most attention in the media, while buildings are often overlooked as major energy consumers and are still simply viewed as shelter made up of a combination of bricks, steel, wood, concrete, etc. However, it is crucial to think of buildings as more than just shelter. When it comes to energy, today's buildings use more than they make, but they need to be self-sufficient, automatic machines. The relationship between the building’s size and its net energy usage determines which building types are the biggest culprit. Hospitals and food service buildings/grocers use the most energy due to the need for more cooling and refrigeration for obvious health reasons. In addition, hospitals use very heavy-energy demanding machinery around the clock. A net-zero energy building is a facility that consumes as much energy as it produces on an annual basis. This simply means that the building uses no more energy than it can generate itself. A building can be made into a net-zero energy building by reverse engineering. While a traditional building is designed and constructed and plugged into the grid to pull as much energy as it wants, a net zero building can be innovatively designed to not exceed the energy limit that is estimated based on the operations and usage the building is designed for. Excessive energy consumption isn't a limiting factor as the building is plugged into the grid and can put back any excess energy it creates. Imagine receiving a utility bill and it being a time to rejoice over net-zero energy goals for your home or workplace with excess energy being sold back to utility to be purchased by others in your community or to power the street lamps and traffic lights that make it safer. Industrial, commercial, and residential building owners should not pay for power, but instead be paid for it by thinking of each building as its own individual clean-energy power plant doing its part to energize the world around us. Homeowners and other building owners spend countless amounts of money to buy a building, therefore we need to maximize what we are getting out of this massive purchase. While making a home or building net-zero might have a slightly higher upfront cost, the long-term cost is going to be lower as the building will be producing its own power. Imagine a sustainable world where we don't rely on utility companies but rather a world where our homes and workplaces generate electricity and earn money while powering all of machines, lights, HVAC, etc. within. All-the-while saving the environment and preventing the negative effects that traditional energy consumption methods have caused to exacerbate the effects of climate change.