Many of our readers are familiar with the two most popular rating systems for how energy-efficient a given home is: The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Homes (the most popular) and the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes.

Both require much greater energy efficiency than traditional American building methods even come close to offering–and for that alone they are invaluable. But an organization called the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), featured in a recent New York Times article and based in Urbana, Illinois, is setting a new, much higher bar for energy conservation: By making a home’s envelope close to completely airtight, making the most of the sun’s natural heat by way of big windows facing south and using a combination of Institute-mandated building techniques and green products to keep that heat in the house when it’s wanted (and let it out when it isn’t), a house that passes the Institute’s certification process uses on average 75 to 95 percent less energy than most new buildings built in the US!

Building a home to the Institute’s standards is somewhat more expensive than traditional building, though the extra expense is often more than offset by the savings from lower energy bills. But because most low-income people can’t afford to spend an extra cent more than necessary on building, but stand to benefit from green housing as much as anyone else, Habitat for Humanity has begun to experiment with Passive Solar housing itself.

H4H Vermont’s Green Valley chapter is currently building the first Passive Solar house in New England, on a city-donated plot in the colonial village of Charlotte. And the house is not only PHIUS-certified, but pre-fab, too–it’s made of modular units that are made in a factory and then trucked in and assembled in near-complete condition. This way of building saves vast amounts of construction waste and goes a long way to protect the natural environment of the building site. The house will be the first pre-fab, modular Passive Solar house in the country, and hopefully will kick off a long-lasting trend in this kind of homebuilding.

The project is in collaboration with the nonprofit Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, builder Preferred Building Systems, Charlotte-based passive-house specialist Peter Schneider, and Boston-based architect JB Clancy.  The house was completed this month, and a family of four is expected to move in by Christmas.

In August, vice-president Biden announced that 200,000 homes had been weatherized under the Recovery Act.  It’s been estimated by the Department of Energy that weatherizing a home can save nearly $350 annually (pdf, 1.1mb) on heating and cooling, or nearly a 32% reduction in heating costs alone.  Indeed, since the establishment of the Weatherization Assistance Program in 1972, which helps low-income peoples insulate their homes, the DoE estimates that over 6.2 million homes have been weatherized, and the current pace of weatherizing homes will save the U.S. 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, the equivalent of taking 107,000 cars off the road.

So, weatherizing a home presents significant opportunities to save energy.  While earlier this week I wrote on the importance of insulating your home, weatherizing is just as important and goes beyond insulating.  Weatherizing involves filling in the cracks of a home where outside air can leak in – and energy and money leak out.

A few green products are on the market to help individuals weatherize their homes.  Energy Star notes that the best way to insulate the home is through sealing and caulking all cracks and drafts.

The diagram above demonstrates some of the most common places where air leaks into and out of a home.  Fortunately there are any of number of ways to seal these leaks, independent of the major investment of insulating a home.

1. Piping insulation, shown above, keeps pipes from freezing, sweating, and losing heat.

2. Indoor window insulating kits seal windows airtight.

3. Switch and outlet gaskets prevent drafts through places we might not consider particularly drafty, but are a source of energy loss.

4. Water heater insulation jackets make home water heaters more efficient.  Handheld adhesive foam prevents leaks around doors and windows.

5. Bonded Logic Ultratouch Mini Rolls help to seal known gaps in insulation, reducing noise and energy loss.

6. Air conditioner weatherseals seal the gaps around air conditioners and in windows; air conditioner covers prevent winter air from entering through a window unit air conditioner.

For these and other weatherizing green products, you can visit Green Depot here.

After three nail-biting months, it looks like the BP oil spill in the Gulf is finally being sealed. This week, drilling engineers are expected to complete the “bottom kill” relief well linked to the main well that had been capped and plugged on July 15th. A combination of mud and cement will be pumped into the well to plug it permanently. Since the oil spill began, an estimated 190 milllion gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Solar ad campaign from 1BOG

In a post on July 12th, before the successful capping, I described the spill in Prius-mile equivalencies: how many hybrid car-miles could have been driven with the lost oil, and  I said that if 1 million Americans bought hybrid cars in the next year, they could save 270 million gallons of oil–three times more than what had been spilled to date.

The solar dealer 1bog (One Block Off the Grid) has done something similar—but with better graphics—describing the oil spill in solar panel equivalencies.  In one scenario, they take the area affected by the spill (roughly the size of Kansas) and calculate how much power could be generated by a Kansas-sized block of solar photovoltaic panels. They estimate that all the electricity needs of the United States, Central America, and South America could be met by such a vast array: for 25 years. (Why not indefinitely–as one commenter asked? Because after 25-30 years the panels lose efficiency and should be replaced). In another scenario, they point out that the spill has cost BP $32 billion to clean up, an amount, they say, that had it been spent on solar panels instead, could have provided enough electricity for all of Los Angeles County for 30 years.

So it’s clear from these whimsical yet hard-hitting ads that solar can indeed pack a punch if enough is invested in it, displacing significant amounts of electricity generated on the fossil fuel-based grid.

Solar array at Hancock Shaker Village

In my neck of the woods, the Hancock Shaker Village recently installed a photovoltaic array on and adjacent to its visitor center, supplying the museum and grounds with 66% of their power needs.

Residences can do the same thing. With prices for photovoltaic panels steadily dropping, they’re more affordable than ever. The federal government offers a 30% tax rebate (with no cap) for solar installations, and most states have their own tax incentives. You can find your state on the DSIRE website database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

Residential PV array by Radiant Complete

In the tri-state area, Green Depot recommends Radiant Complete for residential and commercial solar jobs. Their strengths are in evaluating a project to determine what the clients’ specific goals are (hot water, electricity, or space heating, for example), and the site’s physical parameters (trees and other shading, roof area and angles, building orientation, etc). Then they custom-design a combination of renewable options to fit your needs and budget, and manage the installation using highly skilled professionals.

SolarStar Attic Fan

If you want to cool your house on the cheap and preserve the integrity of your roof shingles and insulation,

Solio Charger

check out the SolarStar Attic Fan. Running on the sun alone (not hardwired into your house), it vents hot air from your attic, keeping the space cooler: preventing destructive ice dams on your roof in winter, and saving you money on air conditioning in the summer.

If you’re a student or a renter on a low budget, there are more green products than ever before on the market. The Solio charger has 3 mini PV panels that allow you to capture and store solar power so you can recharge your cell, iPod and other handheld devices anywhere the sun shines.

Verilux Flashlight

Tired of replacing batteries for your flashlight? You’ll never have to again with the rechargeable, solar-powered Verilux flashlight. Comes with 6 bright LED lights, and casts a wide beam.

So: big or small, there has never been a better time to look at how solar might fit into your life.

The BP oil spill has been on all our minds since April. Much press coverage has focused on the ineptitude of BP’s cleanup efforts, the cozy ties between industry and government, and the environmental and economic impacts of the spill on the Gulf coast.

BP wellhead leakingBut every time I listen to the news while driving in the car, I can’t help but think about the sheer waste of oil and gas.

As of today, about 90 million gallons of oil have leaked from the ruptured wellhead: 8 times what was leaked by the Exxon Valdez. (PBS News has a cool running counter on the amount of oil spilled to date, including how much has been flared.)

Less than half of that has been contained or managed in some way: by skimmer vessels, through messy controlled burns on the surface (creating air quality problems for Gulf residents), and by the cap on the broken pipe leading to the Q4000 rig that flares the oil and gas. Although BP’s website refers to flaring efforts as “recovery,” in fact a only a small part of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon is actually being recovered (saved) for refining and use. According to Max McGahan, a press officer I spoke to at BP today, the Q4000 rig has been flaring about 8,000 barrels (336,000 gallons) per day since its deployment on June 15th . Mr. McGahan would not reveal how much oil has been recovered for refining, although he did say that as of July 10th, the total volume of oil “collected or flared” (not including surface burns) is 749,100 barrels (31.5 million gallons). Do the math: (24 days x 336,000g flared/day = 8 million gallons flared). Subtract that from 31.5, and you see that as of July 10th, only about 23 million gallons had been captured to be refined. In other words, as of July 10th, about 67 million gallons have been lost.

Q4000 flaring BP oil in Gulf
The Q4000 flaring oil in Gulf

I cannot help but measure this loss in terms of Prius-miles. My used blue Prius gets about 42 mpg in the winter, 51 in the summer, and 47 in spring and fall (So let’s say 48 mpg on average). Compare this to the 25 mpg I got in my last car, a 10-year old Ford Taurus wagon. On a 325-mile road trip (to New York City and back), that adds up to about 6 gallons saved. Over the course of a year, if I–like the average American–drive about 12,000 miles, I am now saving about 230 gallons over what I did with my former car. Not a huge amount, but more than a drop in the bucket. In 2009, 23.1 mpg was the CAFÉ standard (corporate average fuel economy) standard for cars and light trucks. Compared to this mediocre rate, I am saving almost 270 gallons per year.

When I bought the Prius, my brother gave me a hard time for paying a premium for a hybrid. We did the math together—at that time gas was $4/gallon—and over the long term I still didn’t break even over paying cash for a cheaper used car in similar condition. But I told him that the economics weren’t the only issue for me; doing the right thing was. I wanted to reduce my personal carbon footprint as much as possible. I’d already insulated and air-sealed my house, replaced my old leaky windows and doors, and had remodeled a few rooms with as many green building products and green materials as I could. I recycle and compost. We’ve cut way back on meat. I hang the laundry on the line to dry. Buying a Prius was the next big consumer step I could take to reduce my impact on the world. I thought that saving a few hundred gallons per year through my autombile selection was a choice worth making.

If only a million Americans (one third of 1% of the population) bought a Prius or similar hybrid this year, they could save an additional 270 million gallons per year—three times the amount of oil spilled to date by BP in the Gulf. Imagine a world with fewer oil wells that blow out or are abandoned, creating a permanent risk of leakage.

I’d like to see the federal government offer better financial incentives for individuals and companies to buy hybrids (check out these state and federal incentives), and to make a host of other energy efficiency moves. Because when a huge corporation loses control of its operation in an environmentally sensitive area, the problem is absorbed by everyone. It’s in all our best interests to maximize the ways that society as a whole can use less energy, and make more green product choices.