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Extreme weather events are becoming common, and they require us to plan how they'll affect our home energy use.


Power Outage? Extreme Heat? There’s Help In An Energy Efficient Home

Extreme weather events are becoming common, and they require us to plan how they’ll affect our home energy use.

The climate crisis has exacerbated the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme heat events and power outages and has changed the everyday energy experiences and practices of consumers. We’ve come to an awakening that, when we are challenged by energy gaps or weather crises, we find ourselves quickly needing to adapt. Patterns of experiences with energy emergencies have led more and more consumers to invest in an energy efficient home as a mechanism to mitigate future energy emergencies.

energy efficient home

Image retrieved from NOAA (public domain)

Common daily routines exist so we can maintain patterns of work and leisure, and with those routines come expectations of comfort, convenience, and cleanliness. As extreme weather events have become more frequent and severe due to the climate crisis, we find ourselves confronted with obstacles that inhibit our ability to keep our families, livelihoods, and homes safe. Indeed, the resiliency of built environments has become a key concern with the increase in frequency and intensity of energy emergencies.

What is an Energy Efficient Home?

An energy efficient home enhances a home’s structure and heating, cooling, and hot water systems. It is an appealing approach to home systems management for consumers, as many people are determined to limit energy costs, to act on the climate crisis, and to enhance energy independence. Building professionals consider all the variables, details, and interactions that affect energy use in a home when enhancing energy efficiency. In addition to occupant behavior, site conditions, and climate, these include:

  • Appliances and home electronics
  • Insulation and air sealing
  • Lighting and daylighting
  • Space heating and cooling
  • Water heating
  • Windows, doors, and skylights.

Living in an energy-efficient home does not just save money on utility bills. A well-insulated, weather-tight house holds heat longer than one that’s poorly insulated and drafty. It will also stay cooler during a heat wave, even without air conditioning, so it can reduce the risk of heat-related illness. Ryan Colker, executive director of the Alliance for National and Community Resiliencesays that, if you lose power during a winter storm, the energy efficiency investments that you’ve made can help keep you in your home. He notes that, as damaging storms, heat waves, and other extreme weather events grow more common, prioritizing energy efficiency can help communities keep their people safe.

Builders can create resilient homes that stand up to wind, rain, and snow and then maintain occupant comfort for as many as 7 days without power — even in extreme hot or cold conditions. “It’s called passive survivability,” says Alex Wilson, president of the Resilient Design Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. “It’s about building homes that remain habitable if they lose power.”

Home energy management that utilizes renewable energy resources to supply load demand can mitigate the effects of energy emergencies, so that homes with energy efficiency technologies can influence thermal resilience of buildings. Ultra-efficient homes combine state-of-the-art energy-efficient construction, appliances, and lighting with commercially available renewable energy systems, such as solar water heating and solar electricity. By taking advantage of local climate and site conditions, designers can often also incorporate passive solar heating and cooling and energy-efficient landscaping strategies. The intent is to reduce home energy use as cost-effectively as possible and then meet the reduced load with on-site renewable energy systems.

For example, the US Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy suggests that, just as wearing light-colored clothing can help keep you cool on a sunny day, cool roof material that is designed to reflect more sunlight and absorb less heat than a standard roof. Cool roofs can be made of a highly reflective type of paint, a sheet covering, or highly reflective tiles or shingles. Standard or dark roofs can reach temperatures of 150°F or more in the summer sun. A cool roof under the same conditions could stay more than 50°F cooler and save energy and money by using less air conditioning.

Research in Energy Emergencies Says…

Scenarios of climate conditions depend on current and future trajectories of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly determined by socioeconomic development and climate policies. Extreme heat, in which conditions are hotter and/or more humid than is typical for a location, is one of the most fatal natural hazards in the US and poses grave risks to human health. Given the sensitivity of human health to extreme heat and humidity conditions, future climate change in the form of increasingly frequent extreme heat index days will pose a growing danger to human health. Future population growth, too, will compound exposure effects.

If we think of space as constituted through social and material relations and interpretations of power, resources, and capital, that leads us to consider why and how energy networks become fixed and how they disintegrate during energy emergencies. Disruptions and failures in infrastructure services are also a reminder that they are not stable but, rather, in continuous flux. It is projected that the number of days with a heat index exceeding 100°F (37.8°C) and 105°F (40.6°C) will double and triple, respectively, relative to a 1971–2000 baseline under multiple emissions scenarios, further compounding the capacity of energy networks to deliver services.

Research at Harvard indicates a synergy between energy efficiency and resiliency to heat in warmer climates. With the observed increase in frequency and intensity of hot weather events in urban areas around the world and research that suggests a more extreme future, the resiliency of the built environment to heat has become a major concern for planners and policymakers.

A 2020 study at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory indicates energy efficiency technologies should be evaluated not only by their energy savings performance but also by their influence on a building’s resilience to extreme weather events.

In the event of severe weather events that lead to a power outage, stored energy can be used to supply customers during the event. Soon energy storage systems will be able to analyze the incidence of strong winds and other meteorological parameters in order to determine when best to start recharging, formulating the operational condition of the local distribution network, and estimating the probability of a power outage.

It’s been hypothesized that some consumers would be willing to pay to avoid power outages. However, the impact of different socio-demographic and household characteristics on respondents willing to pay to avoid a power outage highlights the problems with this proposal, especially with most vulnerable populations.

In Egypt, the demand for smart housing units and the advanced technological applications that can provide support and assistance under the umbrella of smart grids is on the increase for all types of housing schemes, including low-income housing projects and the high-end luxury housing market.

Lebanon’s inadequate electricity services have resulted in endemic power outages, which have become part of the normal everyday life of its citizens yet is differentiated by geography and income. Power outages have produced their own technological structure and space within Lebanon’s homes.

Acute heat exposure and mortality risk is continuing to change slowly over time due to adaptation, change in vulnerability, and susceptibility. The population has become more resilient to heat over time. Yet even with this increased resilience, substantial risks of heat-related mortality remain.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes in life, simpler is better. Many effective efficiency measures are also the least expensive to implement. This encouraging result indicates that low- to no-cost measures can potentially be deployed in buildings in near-real time to enhance passive survivability by allowing residents to shelter in place.

What’s becoming clear is that energy efficiency technologies should be evaluated not only by their energy savings performance but also by their influence on a building’s thermal resilience to extreme weather events.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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