rebuilding old houses

Energy innovation: Dinosaurs are not the future, clean energy is

When I bought my little rotting-into-the-earth beach house on Camano Island, Wash., I discovered not only did it not have any insulation other than some magazines nailed inside the walls but that it had dreaded and inefficient electric heat.

Two things about Washington: It used to have cheap electricity and when it got cold, those in timber country put another log on the fire. I rebuilt the circa 1903 728-square-foot house when I should have burned it down. But it did show me that that new technology in insulation, weatherizing and building can lower heating bills dramatically.

Actually, I still used wood heat. But it was far less, maybe just a cord and a half a year. In Fairbanks, we used a dozen or more for an 18-by-32-foot cabin.

The nation's builders are learning the same lesson, jumping on the innovative Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, ratings system promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council. Others also are catching on, embracing energy efficiency and learning that clean energy can be competitive and create jobs -- not to mention its ability to promote national security.

Super-insulated solutions 

As a reporter, I stumbled on a bunch of alternative builders who fabricated super-insulated houses that needed almost no heat or cooling. Yet, building officials thought these were so obscure that the home owners were put through multiple delays and reviews.

Something out of the ordinary even in the 1990s proved vexing for those in charge. If it didn't have 2-by-6 dimensional lumber in the walls and factory-made trusses, a house was suspect.

Now, that's changed in many regions as reflected by the advances being made in New York and other progressive cities. Even going off the grid isn't considered counter-culture anymore. It's being done by industrial parks, colleges and residences with solar and fuel cell systems.

Smarter and greener

One of my favorite bloggers, Brian Keane, president of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit SmartPower, wrote a piece inspired by a recent issue of Scientific American, which ran a story about "Better, greener, smarter cities." He praises the story and the anecdotes about various inner-city efficiencies while also underlining the difficulties of expanding those practices beyond high-density living areas.

"It will take some work, but if we are to fulfill the expectation of a better, greener, smarter city, we all need to get on board," Keane writes.

The nation has made progress, but the challenge is so steep as to boggle the mind. Humanity is pushing hard to fill earth's skies with the legacy of burned fossil fuels at a rate that alarms scientists.

Hothouse earth

"If we continue down this road, there really is no uncertainty. We're headed for the Eocene. And we know what that's like," says Matt Huber, a climate modeler at Purdue University who was interviewed by National Geographic for a piece by Robert Kunzig entitled "Hothouse Earth."

Kunzig's story chronicles what researchers know about the earth 56 million years ago when a massive spike in carbon dioxide pushed global temperatures higher, resulting in massive geologic change, extinction and adaption. Climate change then turned the Arctic and Antarctic into tropical jungles.

Kunzig reports that Huber uses a climate model, developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, "to forecast what might happen if humans choose to burn off all the fossil fuel deposits." Huber's results are inconclusive and "still infernal," but his "reasonable best guess at a bad scenario" doesn't sound pleasant. Much of China, India, southern Europe and the United States, would experience summer average temperatures "well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, night and day, year after year."

We remain far from the Eocene's level of atmospheric carbon, but we're pushing to free it with current energy trends.

Moving the planet

The folks at and one of its founders, author Bill McKibben, bring this subject up every chance they get. The gist of their argument is even if the world stopped polluting yesterday, the planet would still be burdened with way more climate-changing carbon dioxide that would take nature decades or more to scrub.

The organization's Moving Planet events the last week in September brought many thousands out in support for a reasonable future with a stable climate, clean air and clean energy. The activists pictured in videos and photos are relatively low profile. They're young and riding bikes and running around.

As they displace aging Baby Boomers, especially now that so many of us have been laid off from professions -- like newspapering -- that fell behind the technological curve, these young people will evolve into the decision makers, entrepreneurs and community-minded types who will shift society into a more forward-thinking mode.

At least I hope so. I can totally see the economic benefits to McKibben's No. 1 foe, a trans-Canada/Midwest U.S. pipeline from the oil/tar sands to port in the Gulf of Mexico. I was raised in Fairbanks during construction of the Pipeline. The amount of money and illegal drugs dumped into that state's previously frozen economy was amazing. I can also see the economic prospects of a gas line through Canada. Heck, ask anybody from my era in the state from Anchorage and the Interior and we'd say, "Hell yes."

I'd vote to build both pipelines, then render them immediately obsolete with cheap renewables. That could amount to a form of fraud, but it would be satisfying.

Pebble problems

And I see the sense, economically, in developing the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska. Gold, molybdenum and copper are a valuable commodity and it would put many of the region's residents to work. This proposal, however, makes me sick imagining the potential catastrophe to the Bristol Bay fishing industry and Bering Sea should the mine's tailings ponds burst and contaminate some of the world's richest waterways.

There's a limit to what we can do in the name of the economics. We've already stuck our nose into the Middle East, spending billions for the opportunity to access the region's crude oil.

At some point, the long view must be acknowledged. Our rate of deforestation and general ecological pillage in the name of progress has to be redirected. The consequences have become increasingly evident. Even island nations are starting to sweat their existence.

The answer is not a dinosaur

The first episode of Fox's new series "Terra Nova" chronicles a family's desire to leave the toxic world of 2149 for one overrun with dinosaurs. Present-day life on the planet is dying. Most animals are extinct and the air is poison. The only hope is the past. (I lost interest in the show after the hero, Jim Shannon, played by Jason O'Mara actually gets to the new-old world.)

While that sounds a little like Barry Goldwater's philosophy, I'd prefer one in which oil is used simply to produce polymers and products that don't brown the skies or pollute groundwater. One where the sun is the primary driver of power and the only thing we burn is hydrogen.

I'd also like to see interstellar space travel, but, hey, I'm a dreamer.

Photo: Promotional look at the cast of Fox's "Terra Nova."