The tragedy that has struck Japan has shown that even the most exacting planning for future events can not always avoid catastrophe, but can indeed limit the effects of that catastrophe. The careful planning of the Japanese people for buildings that can withstand strong earthquakes has saved countless lives and much will be gained by studying the effects upon the different structures in the quake area. Unfortunately the effects on the structures in Japan has included severe tsunami damage that has lead to power failures that affected the backup power of several nuclear power plants as well as yet unknown damage to the plants themselves. This earthquake event will almost certainly drive a national debate on the merits of nuclear power and controls of exiting nuclear plants here in the US.
There has already been a reaction by some to focus on the safety of all nuclear plants immediately, and others cautioning against hasty judgments. There will most
certainly be a movement to not allow the construction of other new nuclear facilities with others firmly on the side of allowing nuclear production as a clean alternative to fossil fuel powered energy production plants. These debates have been ongoing for decades and will continue. While the debate of where power comes from and how to best deal with existing power plants is hashed out, I feel an important opportunity has presented itself in the aftermath of this event. What if we focused on NOT using as much power in a more aggressive, yet less confining fashion than we have in the past? By developing ways to increase the effectiveness of the power we do produce by making it go farther through the designing of buildings so much more energy efficient to heat or cool than we have in the past, we may not require additional power to be generated for a longer time into the future. Pie in the sky? Nope – that pie is already available at your corner Passive House consultant’s office.
In the past the idea of saving electricity has meant turning down the thermostat, loading up on sweaters, and being miserable “for the cause”. You can do that if you want to, or you can be comfortable at the same temperature year round while living in a house that can be heated or cooled for roughly 60 to 90% less energy than our existing building stock. This amount of energy savings can be achieved through the Passive House building standard that is focused on designing a house so that it performs to an expected energy efficiency result.
As the population of the world increases we can continue to plan for future needs with today’s energy usage and technology or we can make drastic efforts to plan ahead so that we are making the wisest choices possible to protect future generations. While the debate for what is to be our future energy resource is being worked out and new technologies are being advanced let’s focus now on how to save a watt rather than kill a watt. If we took the most stringent building energy standard, Passive House, and focused on how it can buy us time to plan for our future then we can be as prepared as possible for catastrophes that may come our way.
Even a small crisis of being without power for several days can have immediate health effects on people, but if they could stay in their homes and rely on body heat to stay warm because their house won’t cool off as quickly the planning for that small crisis is worth it. If so many of these houses and buildings are built that we can limit our need for energy production to our existing power sources, the planning for what should be the long term power supply method may have time for careful debate and testing of new materials and methods. That careful planning and testing can build from the lessons that are to be learned from the events in Japan this week and be assisted by the efforts of saving electricity now through the lessons already learned through Passive House construction, our future will be a much more energy efficient one, and hopefully a much more environmentally safe one in the event of a major catastrophe.