Climate change and other symptoms of environmental damage are fast becoming growing concerns worldwide as companies in myriad industries are turning to more eco-friendly means to both offer a product and continue to provide services integral to the everyday lives of customers. The construction industry is one such sector, as it is currently seeing an influx of alternative methods for building and powering projects, especially when concerning how a building under construction can be powered.
For as long as construction has been an industry unto itself, buildings and the means of construction altogether have primarily been powered through the use of fossil fuels directly or with electrical power, which may draw on fossil fuels at the point of generation. And it is a power-hungry sector, with “both commercial and residential builders consider[ing] energy costs one of their highest expenses,” according to ShipleyEnergy.
Because of this strong reliance on fossil fuels, the rates of greenhouse gas emissions have been driven upward. In fact, “Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from the construction industry have increased in recent years, due in part to the reallocation of refined petroleum products from the commercial sector… to other various sectors including construction,” report Bradford Griffin and Michelle Bennett of Simon Fraser University in a 2017 report, Energy Use and Related Data: Canadian Construction Industry 1990 to 2015. “Compared to 1990 levels, energy use has increased by over 37 percent while CO2 emissions have risen by over 42 percent,” say the authors.
These emissions have become a growing concern both within and outside of the construction space, but much is being done to mitigate their further rise.
It is a pressing matter, to be sure. In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés declared in her opening remarks that humanity has “about eleven years,” to “prevent irreversible damage to our planet,” from the effects of climate change. To this end, there are currently movements toward decarbonisation – the shift toward low- or no-carbon energy sources – on a global scale across various industries. From the ground up, new steps are being taken in construction to ensure that a building can be powered efficiently and completely by alternative energy, from the way a building is shaped and oriented to what kind of windows, internal systems, and appliances are installed within.
But no matter how efficiently a building uses energy, that energy must still come from somewhere, and the appropriate infrastructure is needed to first generate or capture it and then to store it. Solar energy, for example, has been in constant development since the late 1800s but, until recently, has had mixed success in catching on with both individual consumers and bigger companies. As with other sources of alternative energy, however, the development of solar has greatly accelerated, as it continues to not only grow in terms of sophistication and viability but also drop in price.
Dan Taylor at Capterra predicts that, “the price of solar will continue to plunge to unprecedented lows.” This is in part due to improvements in panel manufacturing technology, enabling manufacturers to produce more efficient and user-friendly panels faster and cheaper. Massachusetts-based solar energy contractor RevoluSun further predicts that, “The increase in demand for solar energy allows for construction companies to enter a completely new market. By 2024 the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the construction industry will add nearly 800,000 jobs,” proving the advantage of alternative energy take-up beyond mere environmental conservation.
Buildings powered by solar energy capture it with these panels – and in many jurisdictions can feed that power back to the grid – but it takes another element, like a solar thermal collector, to store that energy for use on a long-term basis.
This can include models like the evacuated tube solar thermal collector, which absorbs heat through a darkened plate, or flat plate solar collectors that absorb through a metal collector plate, losing more heat but collecting more energy due to its larger surface area. Some systems use water as the storage medium (stored in tanks kept at near-boiling temperatures) or a series of coils or pipes embedded in the building during early construction.
Much like solar, wind energy is defined as an intermittent resource because there is only a limited amount of either that can be guaranteed to be produced by the planet at any given time. This makes energy storage a necessity, with products like chemical batteries (best for short-burst energy use) and thermal storage (using ice or water to store cooling and heat) being popular solutions so far. A 2019 article by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) observed that, “As extreme weather exacerbated by climate change continues to devastate U.S. infrastructure, government officials have become increasingly mindful of the importance of grid resilience. Energy storage helps provide resilience since it can serve as a backup energy supply when power plant generation is interrupted.”
For wind energy specifically, it is seen as a resource that can allow customers to use less water and reduce waste and greenhouse gases, making it an attractive choice for construction. Wind is also a desirable long-term solution, being a resource that is essentially unceasing, and is largely seen to pay off in the long term even with a potentially large buy-in (purchasing of wind turbines, energy storage, et cetera.). In Western Canada, write Michael H. Vos, Lori Brienza, and Hayley Rushford in the June 2020 article, A Year of Change: Western Canadian Construction Industry 2019-2020, “wind farm construction is growing across the region, particularly in Alberta,” harnessing wind energy on a large scale. “As of June 2019,” they write, “the Canadian Wind Energy Association estimated there were approximately 60 key wind farm construction projects in western Canada, with 38 of them in Alberta, and the remainder divided fairly evenly across British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.”
When it comes to building renewable technology into new structures, construction firms are increasingly looking to net-zero buildings, a term that refers to the design and construction of buildings that have an energy cost that’s balanced by the amount of renewable energy generated onsite. These buildings are capable of independence from the electrical grid in some situations and, when it comes to the harvesting of energy, are most effective when combined with a series of local buildings on the same plan, such as a subdivision or office park.
Net-zero buildings are commonly powered by what is called a “smart grid,” an electrical power grid considered more efficient and resilient than the typical grid setup. The “smart” nature of these grids is focused on the elimination of blackouts while making the power produced greener, more efficient, more adaptable to customer needs, and less costly. A smart grid “uses computer technology to improve the communication, automation, and connectivity of the various components of the power network,” and “improves distribution by relaying information from consumers to transformers and generation plants,” writes David Defranza of Planet Green for How Stuff Works.
There has even been evidence of some of these buildings producing a surplus of electricity which can be sold back to the grid itself, increasing the return on investments for those involved. The net-zero movement is yet another way the construction industry has adapted to environmental and consumer change.
The solutions toward creating a more sustainable space for construction to operate in continue to gain momentum as the entire planet looks to shift its focus toward environmental protection. Time will tell if these trends catch on to the degree that many are hoping to see, but the truth is that renewable energy has never been more viable in the construction of new buildings than at this point in history – and is also sorely needed to ensure a more sustainable future for all walks of life.