As far back as the Gold Rush days, California has always been a magical place to the rest of the world, a place where things happened and the frenetic pace of change and progress an accepted fact of life. That only accelerated when technology companies, largely built by former academics from places like Stanford, Berkeley and USC, took root in Silicon Valley, triggering a revolution that still reverberates around the planet today. California has been a world leader in many areas for decades, but it holds the clear title for environmental awareness and activism, and that is translating into changes in construction that will shake the world once again.
Recently revision to Title 24, the California building standards code, will put in place an ambitious performance goal: by 2020 all newly built homes must adhere to a standard called Zero Net Energy or ZNE. Commercial buildings have to be ZNE-certified by 2030. What is ZNE? It means that the building generates as much power as it consumes on an annual basis. Think about that for a second: Somehow, your house in 2020 will have to generate the same amount of electricity as it uses so it has zero drain on the power grid. You can’t get any more ambitious than that, and, this being California we’re talking about, the state is confident that the technology being developed in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the state will guarantee that the goal will be met.
First, the focus will be on the ability to generate electricity in the home using multiple renewable energy sources, but largely solar. In addition to the traditional solar panels you see on roofs – which, by the way, are getting cheaper and dramatically better at converting sunlight into electricity – companies are working at developing building materials that can convert solar to energy. Imagine the windows of a house that look like any other windows but have technology embedded in them to create power. Or roof tiles that look like any other tiles but they can convert the heat of the sun into electricity.
Next, you have to find a way to store that energy, since the sun doesn’t shine at night, yet the fridge still needs to stay cold. This is where serious advances are being made rapidly, a side effect of the automobile industries research and development into hybrid and electric cars. In fact, the car company Tesla, which is based in California and is recognized as the market leader in electric car technologies, is getting ready to break ground on a new $4 billion factory to build lithium ion battery packs for its cars and perhaps other uses, maybe even future homes.
Finally, you see California’s state government incentivizing architects and builders to innovate and design more energy efficient homes that use technology throughout to manage energy use. These so-called Smart Houses will be able to finely tune the way we use energy, to cost usage by as much as half. Imagine having lights and appliances that automatically turn off when you leave the room or thermostats that know you are home and when you aren’t and can adjust the temperature automatically. A smart house will make a huge impact on minimizing carbon emissions, which is, after all the the reason for the changes we’ve been talking about.
And, you know what they say, As goes California, so goes the rest of the world, so the impact of this initiative will no doubt be followed elsewhere sooner rather than later.