Ask Eartha Steward
February 6, 2008
Dear Eartha:We are planning on building an energy efficient – and ideally energy independent – house in Summit County, but there are so many choices. Both solar and geothermal seem like great ideas for our area. Any advice?- B. Waldo, FriscoIf there ever was a time to invest in renewable energy and build a super energy efficient home – this is it. If you are not part of the climate change solution these days – you are part of the problem.Designing and building a new home is a great opportunity to make a difference, but of course is a complex process filled with decisions at all stages that in turn affect another. My advice is to start with a building orientation that takes full advantage of our (usually) sunny Summit climate. A building with the long axis running east-west is a good start. And, with a properly orientated building and windows, and good thermal mass (like concrete, stone or tile floors), you will be well on your way to taking advantage of the sun’s natural warming abilities without any mechanical or electrical system. Of course, not all building sites are conducive to good solar orientation. But, almost all sites are good for geothermal. Commonly misunderstood, geothermal energy actually comes from the constant temperature of the earth’s crust just below the surface. Usually using a closed-loop system of an anti-freeze-like solution and a heat exchanger, geothermal systems can produce heat and sometimes even electricity. Geothermal energy does not mean that you need to be near a volcano or geyser or hot spring to take advantage of the earth’s heat. But it does mean that you need to dig holes into the ground – an odd point of contention we’ll get to in a minute.Some may remember when the new Alpine Bank on Summit Boulevard in Frisco was being built and a “drilling” rig was on-site digging holes for their geothermal system. And, rumor has it that the Wendy’s gas station complex in Frisco that also invested in geothermal energy for their car wash, restaurant and store has experienced a more rapid payback period that they originally anticipated, making a good case for the economics of geothermal up here in the mountains.What about solar photovoltaic (PV) systems that generate electricity? For grid tied systems, which essentially use the national power grid as a storage system, solar systems are very easy to install and use. Plus, with Xcel Energy’s net metering program (allowing you to sell energy back to the utility at the same rate you pay for it), our sunny days in Summit can help you reduce your power bill to almost nothing. Who knows, you may someday get a check back from Xcel! Check out http://www.xcelenergy.com/solar for more information.With the federal tax incentives, the total cost to install a solar electric system can almost be cut in half! For the specifics, check out http://www.dsireusa.org. Now is definitely the time to go solar. I have to take a slight detour from the question to talk about this mysterious place I’ve heard of recently. Let’s call it “The Middlelands.” I’ve heard it’s somewhere close.In the Middlelands, there is a group of people that have the financial capacity to build large homes with stunning views. They seem to pride themselves on that distinctly mountain look. Using large logs and big windows, these Middlelanders have built a community that many-a-local may envy.But, something strange is happening there. You see, even though this assumingly educated group of people is most likely aware of our global climate crisis and national energy situation, and has the resources to do something about it, they won’t!With strict covenants and design review boards and Homeowners Association (HOA) rules, these people in the Middlelands are refusing the use of solar and geothermal systems within their beautiful community.The irony is that this group of people can most likely afford to install these systems, and some recent transplants into the Middlelands want to do the right thing, are ready to invest, but are not allowed to. They could be helping our collective community move toward a cleaner, healthier world and a more secure nation. But they won’t. Why, you wonder?Well, these Middlelanders have an odd sense of aesthetics, claiming that solar panels (sleek and discreet as they can be these days) destroy the mountain character of their environment. They claim that the necessary site disturbance to dig the holes for a geothermal system is just too much for their sensitive eyes.How are we ever going to change the way we produce energy if we won’t allow the very people that have the resources to install on-site renewable energy systems do so? Especially just for some misplaced sense of mountain aesthetics? Especially since many of these homes are unoccupied year round.Imagine this: Instead of being a constant source of greenhouse gases, pollution and wasted energy use, these unoccupied homes could be mini-power stations, silently generating energy for the grid from solar or geothermal systems even while they are empty. Now that’s the real mountain character of Summit County.Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier, Jennifer Kirkpatrick and Beth Orstad, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Eartha believes that you can walk gently on our planet, even if you’re wearing stylie shoes.Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org or to High Country Conservation Center, PO Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.