Saturday, April 4, 2009
Letter from France about the, uh, future
The main focus of this blog is how one country does not know what the other is doing. As an American living in Germany, I am always surprised to hear Americans talking about how they plan to do this or that because the other thing is not a good idea -- and of course the other thing works fine over here. The other way around is not quite the same: Germans are not oblivious to what we do in the states, but rather monitor it as closely as they can, but they also have their eye on the rest of the planet, so misunderstandings do occur.
Which brings me to the e-mail I got today from an old German friend who once played baritone sax (those things are big) with me in 1996/97 in Strasbourg. He sent me the following scan of an article in a French newspaper, in which the journalists have apparently come up with a house that is "100 percent ecological." They have thought of everything. Click on the two pics to enlarge.
Who else but the French could start off an article with the statement, "Solar panels have a long way to go aesthetically"? The journalists should, however, be credited for having come up with a rather exhaustive to-do list. In a strange twist of aesthetics, they include wind turbines and make absolutely no comment about how they look; do the French protest against solar roofs but not against the visual impact of wind turbines? I am told, however, that small wind turbines are not a good idea. They require regular servicing, so if they are set up in your yard somewhere, you will have to take that tower down probably every year. If you install these things on your house, it may cause structural damage to your home, which the architects never designed to support a small wind turbine during a storm. Finally, large wind turbines are much more efficient than the small things, so if you want to get some of your electricity in wind, buy shares of a local community project (note to Americans: if that last piece of advice doesn't make sense to you, it's because US utilities do not allow citizens to invest in community wind projects -- you'll have to change your law). But don't take my word about small wind turbines -- take Paul Gipe's. He tested just about every small wind turbine on the market in the 1990s, but today he works to get the big ones put up.
Otherwise, the text makes clear what the picture does not: those panels are not just photovoltaic (to generate electricity), but also solar thermal to produce hot water. So you would have to have two different types of solar panels on your roof, which may be what the French are complaining about -- or you can wait until "hybrid PV/thermal panels" (PDF) become commonplace.
The French round off the package with thoughts of rainwater recovery, heat pumps, compost, etc. It sounds pretty progressive to me -- pretty progressive for, say, 1995. The article says this house is "not a myth, but technically possible." Imagine reading an article about how battery systems in cars could be made bigger to support the vehicle's drive train with electricity in order to lower gas consumption. Hmmm...
Let me look out my window here in Freiburg and see what I find -- ah, there it is... and there, and there. Whole neighborhoods of homes that do without heating systems altogether because they are "passive houses" -- put solar on top and you get homes that produce more energy over the year than is consumed inside the house ("plus-energy homes"). These things have been up here for around 10 years, and the concept is almost 20 years old.
In conclusion, it is always amazing to see how one country -- in this case, the French -- can fail to look across the border to see how the living is greener.