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A Clean, Well-lighted Place

One clean-economy adage has always made great sense from where I sit: If you think the sun is coming up tomorrow, you should be investing in solar. Here's more evidence as to why.

A “solar concentrator” developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can capture sunlight streaming through a window and focus it on solar cells around the frame, according to a study in Science, making it possible to put cells on windows and eliminating the need for large, expensive rooftop arrays. The new devices could increase the electric power obtained from each cell more than 40-fold, according to the MIT research team leader. When added to existing solar arrays, the new technology could increase efficiency by 50 percent, bringing down the price of solar power overall. Members of the research team have founded a company to develop the technology, which they say could be implemented within three years.

This, like all hyper-complex, opaque-to-the-untrained technological striding towards renewable energy is pretty great news. It also raises a few questions--some logistical, some aesthetic. I've been doing a little sleuthing about green architecture for another installment of this video gambit, and some of the design innovations in green building would seem to diminish the potential for window-loaded solar panels.

In fact, one award-winning building with which I'm quite familiar (I lived on the street abutting the non-award-winning construction site for my final year of college) takes an almost contradictory approach to efficiency:

Located on a former brownfield site, the project reclaims a formerly derelict parking lot for the community. Five bus lines stop within walking distance of the site, and the project features bicycle stalls and showers.

Waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets, and low-flow faucets reduce water use, and rainwater collected from the roof of the Sculpture Building and surrounding landscape is used to flush toilets, eliminating the use of potable water for sewage transfer.

The project team oriented the Sculpture Building to minimize eastern exposure and almost eliminate western exposure. South-facing windows were designed to provide daylighting without glare in the summer and to provide daylighting in addition to heat gain in the winter.

This is all great, and it shows--the Yale Sculpture Building and Gallery is a platinum-rated LEED site. That's as good a sanction as you can get from the US Green Building Council. But how, say, would the less concentrated sun on a similar building compute with the sweet new window technology? And what about aesthetics? I love indoor sun, especially in the morning--but will the trend toward smart temperature regulation trump my need to photosynthesize?

When it comes to a more energy-efficient built environment, we can see how the story might end (sorry, Wall-E). With real industry-wide information sharing, the only upper limit on efficiency may well be the rate of replacement of current, leaky buildings with less wasteful ones. But as we move (glacially) toward that possiblity, I think it would help to create a framework for assessing best practices in building green. Of course, there's LEED--a great kick-start for 14,000 ongoing certified projects. But it would help if organizations like the USGBC (creators of LEED) didn't have to make an end-run around federal and municipal governments for such ratings. There are lots of curveballs like this bouncing around the green construction industry, from tech to material reclamation to city planning. Seems about time for a "czar" of some sort...

--Dayo Olopade