Net-zero construction gains ground in U.S.

Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquility with the world watching.

The date was July 20, 1969.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," the spacecraft announced. Some hours later Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took man's first steps on the Moon followed closely by fellow spaceman Buzz Aldrin.

Their footprints at Tranquility Base likely remain, a small sign of a massive accomplishment.

NASA's back in the historic footprint game again but in an entirely different way. The space agency, now somewhat redirected and fiscally leaner with the closure of the Space Shuttle program, has been constructing a facility that takes inspiration for its name from Tranquility Base and seeks to be a landmark in another sense, leaving as little footprint as possible.

Here on Earth

Sustainability Base, at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., has been dubbed NASA's latest mission on Earth. The facility has received LEED platinum certification, the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating by the U.S. Green Building Council. Its design incorporates natural lighting, shading and fresh air. The interior boasts non-toxic materials and is, according to NASA, "a living prototype for buildings of the future."

The net-zero movement -- designing and building structures to make as little impact on the environment as possible -- is gaining steam, albeit slowly.

Commercial and residential buildings consume about 40 percent of all energy in the United States and about 70 percent of all electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And electricity consumption in the commercial building sector is expected to increase another 50 percent by 2025.

The net-zero or zero-energy building concept means commercial or residential buildings meet all their energy requirements from low-cost, locally available, nonpolluting, renewable sources, according to "Zero Energy Buildings: A Critical Look at the Definition," a 2006 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "At the strictest level, a ZEB generates enough renewable energy on site to equal or exceed its annual energy use," the study says.

Lunar design influence

Sustainability Base, which is shaped like two side-by-side crescents, gets its power from solar panels, wind energy and fuel cells. It's also chock full of other technologies that make it "capable of anticipating and reacting to changes in sunlight, temperature, wind and occupancy," officials say.

“What makes our building different than the other NASA LEED buildings is that preliminary data are already showing a net-energy positive profile. The building site contributes more energy to the grid than it receives from the grid," says Steven Zornetzer, associate center director for research at Ames, in a description of the base on Ames' website.

Because it also incorporates repurposed NASA aerospace technologies to optimize building performance, Sustainability Base's features cooler statistics than other net-zero buildings. For instance, it uses computational fluid dynamics to simulate environmental flows in and outside the building. This can mean air flows such as wind outside and air flow inside. The building's electronic systems calculate this information and incorporate the data into the heating and cooling systems, saving money in conventional heating and cooling.

Movement expands

Many efforts are under way to reduce production of greenhouse gases from the building sector. Retrofits of existing buildings, such as the iconic Empire State Building, have gained recognition, mostly because the energy-saving upgrades pay for themselves relatively quickly.

Measures are under way in a number of areas. They include sustainability policies from some of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies, efforts by states to increase efficiency through building codes (California's new rules took effect in 2011), programs by the U.S. Department of Energy to fund energy efficiency retrofits in municipal government buildings across the country and the whole house and passive house movements to increase efficiency in residential and commercial buildings.

The U.S. Department of Energy is seeking to develop the technology and a knowledge base for cost-effective zero-energy commercial buildings by 2025. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory already has created a classification system for net-zero energy buildings to aid in the standardization process. NREL's Research Support Facility on its Golden, Colo. campus also was certified LEED platinum and uses 50 percent less energy than if built simply to code. It's massive, too: 360,000 square feet.

Passive house

There's also the passive house movement gaining followers in this country. The practice is reaching quite a fervor in Europe. A house at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History designed with no furnace has been completed and is already catching attention. The residence, which uses passive house design and technology, cuts its greenhouse gas footprint and utility costs to the quick. SmartHome Cleveland received a national attention. One story said: "Because the house is so well insulated, it can hold heat from sunshine, body heat, lights and appliances."

The idea behind passive houses is that they use 90 percent less energy than a conventionally outfitted home of the same size. This also could apply to commercial buildings, but most information I've seen seems to keep this trend firmly entrenched in residential construction, at least in this country.

Passive House Institute U.S. defines the concept this way: It's a "very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. Energy losses are minimized. Any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source."

The push is to carbon neutrality.

The Passive House Institute says in the past decade about 15,000 buildings, mostly in Europe, have been designed and built or remodeled to passive house specifications. It's a small number but could gain significant influence as others see the lifetime benefits and reduced operating expenses -- not to mention the ecological rewards.

From the Earth to the Moon with clean energy

American ingenuity has raged this the past century like Genghis Khan through technological obstacles.

What was science fiction just decades ago can now be held in the palm of a hand or the top of a pinhead. While perhaps the greatest leap for mankind took place at 3:17 p.m. Eastern time on July 20, 1969, when the Apollo 11 lunar module the Eagle landed on the moon, the next may be just aound the corner.

"Nothing can astound an American," wrote Jules Verne prophetically in "From the Earth to the Moon" in 1865. "In America, all is easy, all is simple; and as for mechanical difficulties, they are overcome before they arise. ... A thing with them (Yankees) is no sooner said than done."

Likewise, entrepreneurs in this country have scored success after success. Note iPad sales.

OK. How about figuring out a way to make clean energy the dominant form of electricity production?

It can't be too soon.

A study led by West Virginia University researcher Dr. Michael Hendryx found cancer rates twice as high in a community exposed to mountaintop removal mining as compared with an unexposed town, said Jeff Biggers, a journalist and author, in a piece for Huffington Post. The study links the strip mining method to 60,000 additional cancer cases.

And the production of carbon and air pollution by burning fossil fuels appears destined to ignite a climate disaster that will flummox even the most jaded naysayer.

So we need a plan. Blogger Michael Graham Richard, like me, fixated on the space race of the 1960s, in which the United States pummeled the USSR's efforts, for a model to follow.

"Like in the 1960s, we'll need an inspiring vision to rally our efforts, we'll need to take existing technologies and rapidly push them to the next level, as well as invent new ones," writes Richard in a post on treehugger.com. "But most importantly, we'll need focus; to keep doing the hard work and sacrifices until we reach our goals."

Verne wrote his novel about space travel before any real work on the practical mathematics of such trajectories had been formulated. Yet, his rough calculations and ideas proved remarkably accurate

I use the book in this analogy primarily because I just read the above passage and was impressed, proud even. "Heck yes, that's the spirit," I thought. Mind you, this is my fifth Verne book after plowing through "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "The Mysterious Island," and I'm starting to think like a long-dead translated French author.

Verne's hero in the novel is Impey Barbicane, an industrialist sidelined by the halt of the Civil War. Barbicane's comments at the start of the book made me realize I'm reading something akin to anti-war satire.

"My brave, colleagues, too long already a paralyzing peace has plunged the members of the Gun Club in deplorable inactivity," Barbicane says.

Let's apply that to current day geopolitics. Perhaps stopping all wars, official and unofficial, will give the nation's military industrial complex the incentive to pursue -- like the members of Barbicane's fictional Gun Club -- alternatives like clean energy.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his famous 1961 speech that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

But he also said its "total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government." That power, harnessed for clean energy profits, could be world-changing.

In the meantime, smaller businesses are doing quite well on their own.

Michael Kanellos of greentechmedia.com reports that First Solar has developed a cadmium telluride solar cell returning a record 17.3 percent efficiency. The breakthrough beats the old record of 16.7 percent set by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory a decade ago.

And Timon Singh of inhabitat.com reports that start-up Semprius has unveiled a solar cell half the size of a pinhead, which when combined with powerful but inexpensive lenses can concentrate sunlight more than 11,000 times and convert it to electricity.

Other breakthroughs and cost reductions are happening throughout the solar industry, bringing us closer to the day when solar will compete head to head, without subsidies, with fossil fuels.

For now, we wait. And I'll be discovering just how protagonist Barbicane reaches the moon.

Photo: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin takes his steps for mankind.