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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Sustainability: Reflections on a Smart Imperative

Reflections on a Smart Imperative

James Bickford

Summary: SCU 2006-07 Environmental Ethics Fellow James Bickford describes the challenges facing the University's Solar Decathlon Team as they built a sustainable solar house. Bickford defines sustainability as efficient use of materials, production of a minimum of waste, contribution to the health of its surroundings and inhabitants, maximization of livability, and a strong focus on accomplishing these tasks within an economically smart framework.

Over the last year I have spent my free-time overseeing a group that is designing and building a solar-powered house. Through this project I have come to realize that it is imperative to move beyond stereotypes and realize that everyone has a common interest and stake in sustainability and solar energy. I am a college student and the project manager of the Solar Decathlon at Santa Clara University. In such a position, I am supervising a team of peers through the design and construction of a solar-powered house as part of a United States Department of Energy competition.

This project has revealed many interesting lessons. One of the most exciting is the power which solar energy and sustainability have in uniting such different people toward a common goal. Solar technology, in particular, is becoming extremely interesting to a wide range of people in such diverse fields as ethics, economics, environmental studies, and politics. The lessons our group has learned translate into all these fields and should provide an interesting guide to those seeking more knowledge on sustainable development and solar construction.

To say that the Solar Decathlon Team is involved in a collegiate competition may suggest that we are limited to fun and games. In reality this is a group of intelligent, innovative, and promising students with backgrounds in engineering, business, and liberal arts. Our project has taken the concepts of sustainability-economics, environment, and equity-and combined these into a livable, transportable, and flexible house. The group's goal is to show that sustainability is more than simply a concern for the Earth; it is also a dynamic, important, and even lucrative market.

Sustainability is a word that dates back to the Brundtland Commission, convened by the United Nations in 1983. Gro Brundtland defined the concept as "meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Sustainability is commonly defined by the three E's, which for the purposes of building a house are: building an environmentally friendly house, doing so in a way that is economically smart, and doing this with a commitment to equity. Equity is an important ethical consideration because we must consider the rights of future generations that do not have a say in our current practices or politics. It is important to note that the environment is only one aspect of sustainability; it is checked by the concepts of economics and equity, which among other reasons is why I believe that sustainability is a smart and non-partisan philosophy.

The obstacle that many Americans face is in recognizing that sustainability is no longer just a "hippie" thing. Sustainable development is a challenge that is very real, even if all Americans are not ready to acknowledge it. We run many risks when we exceed the assimilative ability of the environment, when we produce more than the environment can clean up. Human beings have the amazing ability to take materials and use them in ingenious and helpful ways. Along with this ability comes the natural waste from these processes. Our landfills, gaseous emissions, and byproducts of industry are some examples. When we produce more of this than the environment can "digest," then we have a build-up of materials in a place they do not belong. This has unintended consequences that can adversely affect the ecological balances around us.

Today, we are drastically exceeding the assimilative ability of the environment. There is little debate about this fact. Agencies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control publish report after report confirming the existence and cause of global warming and outlining its impact. The panel, composed of scientists from over 112 countries, said in a major February 2007 report that its confidence in the human causes of global warming was 90% or greater. The Bush administration, harshly criticized for stances on environmental policy, quickly accepted the report. Global warming has moved away from speculation and become scientific fact. There are still questions on what the impact will be. There are also questions about what to do about it. But the important conclusion is that global climate change is real, and that it is caused by unsustainable practices in human development.

This fact alone is cause for worry, but it occurs against the backdrop of a global burst of economic activity unparalleled in human history. With the industrialization of China, India, and other developing countries, we are drastically taxing the limits of the planet's regenerative ability. We are also going to learn a tough lesson in economics. With more people in the world using more materials than ever before, we will quickly learn just how small our planet really is. If we do not learn how to live sustainably, there will be dire consequences: economically, politically, and environmentally.

One way that could avert these consequences is to build sustainably. Buildings, globally, account for 40 percent of all raw materials, or 3 billion tons annually. Buildings in the United States "are responsible for 65 percent of total electricity consumption, 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, 136 million tons per year of construction and demolition waste (approximately 2.8 pounds per person per day) and 12 percent of potable water use." (Edwards 97). These numbers are staggering. But they also point to one of the greatest ways to affect development in a positive direction. One house may not make a world of difference, but a world of sustainably produced solar-houses would. By changing the way we design and construct buildings, we can have a tremendously positive impact on the environment and on our economic outlook.

Santa Clara University's solar house showcases some innovations in materials and systems integration that, if implemented on a large scale, could dramatically change the rate of pollution and consumption on a world-wide scale. Our team goal was to design a house that runs completely off the clean rays of sunshine hitting solar panels on our roof. Solar-panel technology has been around for decades, but is only now starting to get attention as an economically feasible, and even entrepreneurially exciting, option. The solar cells on our house are quite conventional. They will power all of the appliances of a modern American household. They will heat and cool the house, provide hot and cold water, and even charge an electric car. We also have an economic model that predicts a return on investment of our panels within 7 years assuming that oil prices remain flat, which is a very conservative assumption. Our house is designed to show that solar design is sustainable-smart, easy, aesthetic, marketable, and economically advantageous.

Early on we realized that defining a sustainable house was not an easy task. There is no internationally accepted model for sustainability. The concept is still very fluid and oftentimes a matter of perspective. After months of research, we decided that our model for a sustainable building would proceed by the following principles: efficient use of materials, production of a minimum of waste, contribution to the health of its surroundings and inhabitants, maximization of livability, and a strong focus on accomplishing these tasks within an economically smart framework.

Our research has yielded many surprises. The biggest is how readily available sustainable materials already are. Sustainable products are everywhere. You can put solar panels on your house, you can install compact fluorescents, you can install double paned windows, you can follow Energy Star ratings on appliances, you can have an electric or ethanol powered car, you can use control systems efficiently to monitor your house, and you can use reclaimed insulation and other sustainable materials. All of these are things that already exist and have the potential to do a lot of good for your house. Just because there are good products, however, does not mean that they are necessarily right for you.

We discovered that there are trade-offs to sustainable construction. Not everything is obvious and there is no one, right answer. For example, you would not make your house sustainable simply by covering it in solar panels because this is cost-ineffective. You also have to be careful not to get caught up in sloganeering and public sentiment. "Greenwashing" refers to a situation when a company tries to capture good public sentiment by touting its product as green even if the product is not.

Another interesting concept we discovered was what is called "passive design." This concept means that a house should be designed for a specific geographic location, cultural identity, climate, and take into account the local natural resources. The building should be situated to maximize the potential benefits of a location, and minimize location-specific adverse factors. For instance, if a house is located in the Northern Hemisphere there should be many south-facing windows to collect energy and natural lighting all day. On the Solar Decathlon house the pitch of the roof is sloped towards the south; this allows us to collect as much light as possible on our solar panels. Passive design can be as simple as planting deciduous trees in front of a window. During the summer these trees shade a window, minimizing AC loads; and in the winter, they shed their leaves allowing heat to penetrate the house.

Embedded energy is another important component of building a sustainable house. It is the energy used to construct the materials, transport the materials, and assemble the materials used in construction. It is important to take into account the impacts of this energy use, especially when accounting for the metabolic processes of the Earth. The Solar Decathlon team found a very desirable material for exterior paneling that was produced in Europe. When the team did further investigation into the matter, however, it was realized that the carbon cost to ship this material across the ocean and then to truck it to the University was much greater than the good made up by the clean material. It is very important to factor in the concept of embedded energy when selecting materials for a house. Every part of a building has a life cycle from the time it is a raw material, through processing, distribution, and then shipping and assembly. This life cycle produces waste all along the way, and while this may not be apparent at the end result, it is still a very important consideration in sustainable design.

All of the mentioned examples are just some of the ways to address issues surrounding sustainable construction and design of a solar-powered house. It is exciting to see that sustainability is a growing movement. With the great challenges looming ahead of us, there are also great opportunities. This year Silicon Valley has seen a 700% increase in "Green Tech" investment. There are over 40 companies in the research and development phase of solar energy. Many of the Valley's most influential members compare the enthusiasm surrounding this movement to the beginning of the computer industry, which gave the valley its name. With all of this talented labor and capital in one place the innovations have already begun. And the potential is huge.

Beyond company profits, the benefits of green tech are numerous. Clean, renewable supplies of energy that recognize no border, that are not funding terrorism, that give Americans jobs, and that provide a new source for world direction and innovation are appealing to liberal, conservative, small business, big business, environmental hippie, the old, and the young alike. The power of combining these forces, healing partisanship, and working toward a common goal is an appealing ideal, especially for a young college student like myself.

All of the challenges facing us are tempered by hope. Our most abundant renewable resource is the innovative thinking that has made our world the place it is today. My team and I are worried about the future, but we know that worrying will not solve its problems. I hope that history will remember my generation as the sustainabilist one. Sustainability is a smart, ethical, and economic imperative for all human beings. Sustainability is not a compromise between different factions; it is a partnership, and it has the potential to drastically improve collaboration on a world-wide scale.

Sep 1, 2007