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An envoy from our state's National Renewable Energy Laboratory arrives armed with solutions



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'I really think that the average American unfortunately doesn't understand how serious this problem is," says Chuck Kutscher. "... In fact, the science behind this is very solid."

Being that Kutscher directs the Buildings and Thermal Systems Center at Golden's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the physicist, nuclear and mechanical engineer could of course only be referring to one problem: climate change. Which does usher in a daunting list of other concerns, though, just one being elected officials in Congress who are climate change deniers.

"The good news," says Kutscher, praising the White House for its efforts, "is we are seeing a lot of work on the state and local level" as well. "Many communities are being aggressive."

As are those paid to be just that: military leaders, as highlighted just last week in a Rolling Stone piece titled, "The Pentagon & Climate Change: How Deniers Put National Security at Risk."

NREL isn't so much a place for a call-to-arms as it is a soundboard for solutions, especially considering that it houses the largest net-zero commercial office building in the world, from which Kutscher spoke to me ahead of his Tuesday, Feb. 24 presentation in Colorado Springs, "Climate Change: The Latest Science, Why It's Serious, and What We Can Do About It."

That's being presented by the Pikes Peak Chapter of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) along with the Southeastern Chapter of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. Here's a cherry picking of five highlights from our chat.

On something NREL's doing right now: "Buildings use about 40 percent of our country's energy and about three quarters of our electricity. And so we're looking at ways that 'smart' appliances and other types of equipment in homes and buildings can respond in a way that enables this variable renewable penetration on the grid." ["Variable" refers to photovoltaics and wind turbines, subject to inconsistent sun and wind, trying to feed utilities that require steady electricity feeds.]

On things you can do to help: "Transfer over to energy-efficient lighting. Compact fluorescents are available and LEDs are now very attractive. They're coming down in cost. They use a lot less electricity and produce less heat. Properly insulating your house — attic insulation is a big thing. Energy-efficient windows. ... Trying to use public transportation. Minimizing your travel. Going to more energy-efficient vehicles like hybrids."

On the Keystone XL Pipeline debate: "It's a political issue. But it's pretty clear that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the oil that comes out of the tar sands are significantly higher than for conventional sources of oil. And ultimately we need to be reducing our fossil fuel consumption and/or sequestering the CO2 from those sources.

The good news, though, is that solar and wind have come down so much in cost that in fact it makes economic sense to switch to carbon-free energy sources. ... The nice thing about renewable energy is you know what the cost of your fuel is going to be 10 and 20 years from now. In the business world, minimizing risk and uncertainty is worth a lot."

On NREL's Research Support Facility (that epic net-zero building): "It utilizes photovoltaics not only on this building but also on our parking garage and on our visitor parking lot canopy. ... The building axis is oriented east-west, and so it has a lot of south-facing glass.

[It's] very heavily insulated. It has thermal mass ... transpired solar collectors. These are black perforated metal that go on the south wall of portions of this building so that in winter, building-insulation air is brought through the holes in those walls and is pre-heated by solar energy ... that reduces our ventilation air heating load. ... Hot water [is] provided by a wood-chip burning plant ...

By developing a performance contract for the building, we ensured that all the energy goals were met at a reasonable cost. The average construction cost for a whole range of recent buildings was $334 per square foot. And this building cost $259 per square foot."

On outcomes from the 200-page "Tackling Climate Change in the U.S." report Kutscher wrote in 2006: "We could well be on the path to a 60 to 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050. I'd say now we need to do even better than that. ... Because we're late, we can't totally solve the problem in the near term. We're going to have to adapt. ...

If we don't really get serious about addressing it, the amount of adaptation is going to be much worse. And the economic losses are going to be much worse. ...

I would encourage people to listen to what the science community says. We have some of the world's best scientists in this country. They're really doing their best to communicate that climate change is something that we need to address. And the good news is that we have the means to address it. We just have to be willing to make this transition to carbon-free energy technologies."


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