A Tale of Two Cities

by Matt Shudtz

January 05, 2009

Last week, the New York Times ran two stories that present a fascinating dichotomy in people’s response to rising home-heating costs.


On Friday, Elisabeth Rosenthal reported from the central German town of Darmstadt about “passive houses” that employ high-tech designs to provide warm air and hot water using incredibly small amounts of energy – as little as might be used to power a hair dryer.


Rosenthal explains the design briefly:

Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.

The next day, Rosenthal’s colleagues, Tom Zeller, Jr. and Stefan Milkowski, reported on an entirely different trend that is developing here in America. Homeowners are rediscovering the age-old tradition of burning coal in home furnaces and boilers. After hitting its historical low in 2006, residential coal use increased 9 percent in 2007 and over 10 percent in the first 8 months of 2008.


Simply put, coal is cheap. According to the Times, one ton of high grade coal might cost as little as $120. To get equivalent heat from heating oil might cost $380, while natural gas could run up to $480.


But coal is also dirty. Lacking pollution controls, home installations emit carbon dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, and every other pollutant found in the coal. EPA has put restrictions on wood stoves and fireplace inserts to limit particulate matter emissions, but there are no such regulations governing residential coal burning.

As Zeller and Milkiwski point out,

In some localities where residential coal burning is becoming a factor, that might be changing. In Fairbanks [Alaska], air quality experts suspect the increase in coal burning — along with increased wood burning — is contributing to concentrations of fine particles well above federal limits. “We see it as a real health hazard to Fairbanks,” said Jim Conner, the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s air quality specialist.

A little more growth in the residential coal market will likely result in regulation to protect against exactly such problems.

I also found these two articles interesting. I was disappointed, however, at the scant attention paid to Passive House construction in the US. Had Ms. Rosenthal taken the time to contact the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), she would have discovered that: a) we have been building to the standard here in the US since 2003, b) we have successfully built in a wide range of climates, c) requisite components are becoming available here, d) Passive Houses have been built and sold for low-income housing programs here, e) Passive Houses can indeed "work in a shady valley(...) or on an urban street with no south-facing wall" and finally, f) there is a vibrant and rapidly expanding movement of U.S. building professionals who are working to realize the great promise that Passive House construction holds for our economy, our energy needs, our workforce, and our environment. Hopefully, a follow-up on such budding American progress is in coming. Thanks for your post and your website! Regards, Mike Kernagis Passive House Institute US
— Mike Kernagis
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Also from Matt Shudtz

Matthew Shudtz, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Center for Progressive Reform. He joined CPR in 2006 as policy analyst, after graduating law school with a certificate in environmental law.

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