Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
Fifty years ago, the U.S. flew Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon, where they walked on its surface. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy had declared the moon landing as a goal with a deadline at the end of the decade. Many thought it would never happen, but the country rose to the challenge and in just eight years with inspired determination, teamwork and better technology, we changed the imagination of the world. We adopted a new, higher standard for our own capability.
Since then, there have been many amazing human achievements, but it’s time for another leap, another moonshot. The climate crisis is becoming pervasive and the world’s response has been and must be transformational.
Although the private sector is the primary landscape for economic and cultural disruption, we are becoming less naïve about the role of governments, especially local governments, as catalysts for the needed changes. Without corporate will, there is no momentum, no tipping point. However, companies rely on regulatory partnerships to level playing fields and create the stability needed for successful strategic implementation.
Climate Regulations from Local Governments
Local governments are becoming aggressive with declarations, followed by action. By August, 860 local governments around the world had declared a climate emergency and committed to accelerated initiatives and regulations. In response, a spirit of innovation is sweeping through construction, energy generation, transportation, manufacturing, medicine and agriculture.
Meanwhile, the greatest catalyst for change will not likely be the “spirit” of anything. Instead, it will be fear in the face of increasingly calamitous global tragedies and conflicts. For decades, we environmentalists have been tiresome doomsayers. Unfortunately, the dire warnings have proven to be reasonably accurate.
In July, a freak hailstorm in equatorial Guadalajara, Mexico, left cars under 3 to 4 feet of accumulated ice. Every region in the United States and the world has been experiencing strangely intense weather events. Floods, drought, and fires are fueling a change in the public conversation about climate upheaval.
In addition to anecdotal reports, statistics from reinsurance companies and scientific data on heat records, glacial melting, ocean currents and temperatures are all strokes on the canvas of a very dark scene: the climate crisis isn’t coming soon or exaggerated. It’s here, it’s powerful and it’s about to get ugly.
The chaos will include continuous, intense natural disasters; civil and military unrest involving heat waves, drinking water and food; mass geographic migrations; and disease epidemics and deadly pandemics.
And yet, I remain optimistic. Because as someone who studies technical and societal climate solutions full time, I know that not only does humanity have the means well in its grasp to yank itself back from the precipice, but we are already on the road to doing so.
Achieving the Impossible
University of Nottingham computer science Professor Graham Kendall was quoted this summer by “The Conversation.” He noted that the Apollo 11 guidance computer had 32,768 bits of RAM and 72 kilobytes of ROM. The processor ran at .043 megahertz.
An iPhone with 4 gigabytes of RAM would have 34,359,738,368 bits. It is millions of times more powerful than the guidance computer. The latest iPhone has about 100,000 times more processing power.
Still, Apollo 11 traveled more than 200,000 miles through space, landed the lunar module, allowing astronauts to disembark and collect samples and safely return to Earth.
Surely with today’s advanced technology, some inspired determination and teamwork, we can move against our highest climate priorities. Construction, transportation and energy generation create more than 70 percent of emissions in almost every country.
Of the three, construction is still the slowest to advance but it will soon shift into high gear, completely reinventing the definition of a building and the construction process over the next 20 years. The drivers of this surge will be government intervention, generational evolution and a relentless climate imperative.
Although 90,000 projects have been certified under standards such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating programs, many progressive cities and states are re-evaluating the focus on anything that doesn’t specifically limit carbon. Dozens of cities — including New York, Los Angeles and Toronto — are already phasing in new rules that will virtually eliminate fossil-fuel systems in new buildings by 2030. Many are also talking about retrofit programs for existing buildings.
As reported earlier this year, passive house is becoming a popular model with designers because it disallows fossil fuels or oversized HVAC, emphasizing high-performance envelopes and optimized energy loads. The International Passive House Institute says there are now more than 20,000 projects worldwide, with about 2,000 in the United States.
Numerous signs abound that passive house is going to proliferate in North America, and this has already begun with about 120 projects underway in New York City alone. In addition to addressing carbon, builders are finding that if managed carefully, the extra cost for passive house is already less than 5 percent and dropping.
Passive house demands a wholistic design view of the structure, which allows air-source heat pumps, energy recovery ventilators and heat pump water heaters to have their day. For heavier loads, the go-to system of the future may be geothermal. All these systems are compatible with low-temperature hydronic systems and drain water heat recovery.
This will not be good news for boomer-aged, gas furnace-oriented installers, so they will have to re-evaluate their bias and upgrade their training.
Sales of air-source heat pumps were up by 14.8 percent in 2016, 12.9 percent in 2017 and 9.1 percent in 2018, notes the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute. Ground-source heat pump sales increased 37 percent in 2018, driven mainly by their reinstatement in the U.S. clean energy tax credit framework. More than 2.6 million heat pumps are sold in the United States each year.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and the American Institute of Architects have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work more closely together as they continue to advance sustainability in the built environment.
In February, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) authorized $200 million for low-carbon heating technologies in both new and existing buildings under SB 1477. CPUC will oversee low-carbon heating and electrified buildings, and update energy-efficiency standards.
Beginning in 2020, it will be illegal in California to build a new structure without rooftop solar or community solar. This will affect about 80,000 annual projects. The code also requires thicker insulation, tighter door seals and recommends battery storage and solar-powered water-heat.
New York City passed bills requiring steep cuts to greenhouse gases, and retrofits with new windows, heating systems and insulation to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030, and double this amount by 2050. It created a clean energy loan program and required some buildings to cover roofs with vegetation or solar panels. Nineteen other North American cities are considering similar measures.
New York State will help fund some 83,000 geothermal and similar heat pump systems in the next five years in Westchester County, providing generous rebates of $1,200/ton and $1,500/ton. Numerous states are monitoring this pilot, and a few are already implementing similar measures.
One way for developers to address the skills shortage, save cost and time in the schedule, and control building envelope quality is to work with prefabricated building modules. Hotel rooms or hospital bathrooms arrive at the site pre-fitted with plumbing and HVAC systems, fixtures, appliances, even furniture.
The global modular construction market is estimated at USD 112.42 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach USD 157.19 billion by 2023, at a compound annual growth rate of 6.9 percent.
In July, the U.S. women’s team won its fourth soccer World Cup at Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano football stadium. The stadium uses CO2 transcritical refrigeration systems in all its restaurants and lounges.
Carbon dioxide refrigerant has a global-warming potential rating of 1, the lowest of all refrigerants. Similar systems are being installed in grocery stores, arenas and other buildings across North America.
Ammonia and certain blends also are being used to try to meet the newest requirements under the Montreal Protocol. The Heating Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International and other trade groups have been working toward a national policy on HFC phasedown and updates to building codes and training.
As mentioned, the behemoth construction industry has always been slow to change. As governments force the issue, there will be controversy.
In the world of energy generation, controversy is beginning to subside because the old ways simply cost far too much. Wind, solar and electricity storage are displacing coal, gas and nuclear at astonishing rates.
Xcel Energy — which serves Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin — recently reported that it would retire its last two upper Midwest coal plants a decade earlier than planned and invest in more renewables. It will hit 80-percent carbon reduction by 2030 on the way to its goal of 100 percent.
Wind power alone provided 66.4 percent of energy to the primary Colorado grid during 2015, ERCOT in Texas has reached 44 percent and MISO (12 Midwest states) has achieved 12,720 megawatts.
California is now generating 60 percent of its electricity from renewables, while New York state officials have announced the largest offshore wind energy contracts in the country — creating enough energy to power more than one million homes, resulting in 1,600 new jobs and $3.2 billion in economic activity.
Two of the many substantial utility-scale battery electric storage projects announcements are the Manatee Solar Energy Center in Parrish, Fla., at 409 MW and the Helix Ravenswood in Queens, N.Y., at 316 MW.
New Jersey will deploy 600 MW of energy storage by 2021 and proposes to have 330,000 light-duty electric vehicles on its roads by 2025. It also is targeting 3.5 gigawatts of offshore wind and 2 GW of energy storage capacity by 2030.
Non-Utility Electric Storage Market
Smaller batteries may relate more tangibly to HVAC professionals who are reinventing themselves. Part of the clean energy metamorphosis has been the installation of more than two million rooftop solar systems by organizations and individuals. In 2010, less than 40,000 arrays were added; in 2019, professionals installed more than 300,000 of them.
If that’s not dramatic enough, brace yourself for the next chapter in distributed energy: the dark-horse emergence of privately owned batteries with compelling advantages. This will dovetail with photovoltaic solar, HVAC electrification, smarter homes, home charging for electric vehicles and resilient institutional buildings.
A 2019 report from Global Market Insights predicts that the residential energy storage market in North America, which was less than $100 million in 2017, will mushroom and exceed $2 billion by 2024.
Rapid electrification also is being driven by huge savings on peak electricity charges through portable batteries, microgrids and software. Organizations with numerous properties are adopting these systems everywhere. They pay off the system in just a few years and then enjoy continuing reductions in operating costs, along with increased resiliency and security.
Sales of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles are steeply declining in every country, while electric vehicle sales are increasing in the double and triple digits. In the United States, Tesla leads the movement, a company considered controversial due to its colorful CEO, Elon Musk.
It is also under constant attack from Big Oil lobbyists, a vast cabal of short-sellers on Wall Street and car dealers in every town in America, whose maintenance-dependent business model is likely to be decimated without the internal combustion engine.
Despite all the babble, Tesla is quite well-managed and successful. It enjoys a commanding electric vehicle market share lead in the United States and Europe, and has already posted a 51-percent increase in U.S. sales in the first half of 2019. It has significant advantages with technology research and development, robotic manufacturing, supply chain security and production costs.
The electric car manufacturer also boasts a No. 1 rating in quality, safety, resale value and customer loyalty. It recently built a new manufacturing plant in China, in less than one year, that will be producing at least 60,000 vehicles annually. Tesla will likely capture a strong position in the luxury segment of the substantial Chinese EV marketplace.
Electric vehicles are now at about 5.4 percent of Chinese auto purchases, which might not sound like much, but it is more than a million cars. In Norway, about 56 percent of all new car purchases are electric. Other countries are studying their incentive programs.
Volkswagen recently announced it will convert its entire Zwickau factory in Germany for production of about 330,000 electric vehicles each year. For several years, VW and other automakers in Detroit and Germany predicted that electrics would fizzle, but this is quickly changing.
Only die-hard oil lovers still think the electric car will be killed this time. Auto industry investment and government planning is almost 100-percent focused on the electric transportation conversion, with conventional automakers facing existential-scale strategic wagers in the next two to three years.
In Europe and North America, conventional car companies are paying hundreds of millions in penalties for the “Dieselgate” scandal. They also are buying hundreds of millions in carbon offsets from Tesla because they have been slow to meet phased-in emissions regulations. During July, a $1.2 billion lawsuit was registered against Ford Motor Co. for misrepresenting its miles/gallon ratings.
Oil companies are now being sued all over the world, with complainants using tobacco company class actions as a model. The world’s largest financial managers are divesting from oil and coal. One report says global divestments are up to more than $8 trillion.
From a consumer perspective, an electric vehicle is quieter, safer, more luxurious, fun, trouble-free and costs 60 percent to 80 percent less to fuel and maintain than a gas vehicle. It’s a compelling story. There are numerous indicators in parts of the United States, Asia and Europe that the shift might even be completed more furiously than landlines to mobile phones, or film cameras to digital.
In Detroit, Japan, Germany and Korea, once-arrogant auto executives are now making retirement plans. They’ve never seen anything like this and simply don’t have the energy to cope with it.
Despite their despair, climate breakdown can be viewed as a wonderful opportunity for humanity to demonstrate the ingenuity and resiliency of our species. We have everything we need to fix this problem.
Anyone with a zest for life in any field of endeavor, including construction and HVAC, should welcome the opportunity to invent new ways.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, said recently, “Watching Apollo 11 land on the Moon 50 years ago was a truly inspiring experience. It reinforced my belief that there’s no challenge that cannot be overcome when people work together towards the same goal.”