Gizmo Green Is Back With 'Climate-Proof Homes'

Others think we should put "efficiency first" and forget about the smart stuff.

House with solar panels
The Future We Want.

Robert Kirk/Getty Images

There is an increasingly popular school of thought that says a building's energy efficiency isn't that important anymore when you can "electrify everything," a phrase coined by environmental writer David Roberts, formerly of Grist and Vox and now on Substack as Volts.

Inventor and entrepreneur Saul Griffith is a big voice in this, claiming that with clean electricity, we can just add ever-cheaper solar panels until it net-zeroes out everything, promising "same–sized homes. Same–sized cars. Same levels of comfort. Just electric."

There is some logic to the concept: We do not have an energy crisis, we have a carbon crisis. If you have a roof big enough and load it up with solar panels and net-zero it out with clean energy from a decarbonized grid, who cares how much energy is used? Throw in some batteries and it is, as Elon Musk likes to call it: the future we want.

Now Oliver Milman, a U.S.-based environmental reporter for The Guardian, has picked up on the concept. Insulation and efficiency aren't completely ignored but take the back seat to technology and as Steve Mouzon called it and we copied it: "Gizmo Green."

"Power use will become smarter and more automated, with technology helping spread energy use throughout the day to work in tandem with a grid powered by variable wind and solar, rather than cause big surges in demand that require the burning of gas or coal."

Heat pumps will replace furnaces, and other newfangled things like replacing "incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs, installing low-flow shower heads and phasing out gas stoves in favor of electric induction stovetops."

According to Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, the building decarbonization advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, homes will have to follow three interlocking mantras: “using the least energy possible from the cleanest sources at the right time." But it has to be painless.

"The only way we will be able to do this is if the home feels just as comfortable and user-friendly as it has always been” said Cunningham. “You need to be able to take hot showers, be cool in summer and warm in winter and not know the difference in terms of how that is all powered.”

The problem with all of this is it is not going to be painless; we are in a climate emergency. Milman does mention insulation occasionally, once mentions air sealing, and like all the electrify everything proponents, makes it all seem so easy.

The other problem is that just changing the heat source doesn't deliver comfort; that is a function of the building envelope. Neither is all this stuff user-friendly; it's complicated and needs to be managed. When your car is talking to your water heater to your solar panels, you have to understand what they are saying.

Architect Michael Eliason, a Treehugger contributor, notes we are going to need a lot of power. One might add that they are going to need a lot of roof.

He notes also that energy isn't the only problem we face.

A rogues gallery of building scientists, architects, builders, and Treehugger regulars piled on in response to poor Roberts here to point out that we need building efficiency to reduce demand enough so that the electrical grid can cope, which is why the Passivhaus crowd says "fabric first"—fix the building envelope and the rest is easier. Click on the tweet and read the whole thread.

The Guardian is a British newspaper, so we asked a British expert for his thoughts. Building performance and Passivhaus consultant Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions tells Treehugger he doesn't know where to start, but delivered a stream of consciousness.

"I can take potshots at the silly bits but overall it conjures up a parody graphic of a person in grey with some yellow add-ons such as ; water bottle, emergency rations, bullet resistant vest, gold coins sewn into belt, NZ passport, paper map, mirror for signalling . . . Climate breakdown resilient prepper. The battery powered self reliant American home so misses the point in the way that being armed to the teeth is the way to keep safe in a dangerous world. That is before we even do any numbers about actual savings v upfront carbon and cobalt."
"Future archeologists will think that the solar panels were some kind of talisman that people believed would save them."

Again, Milman is not totally ignoring the role of insulation and air sealing, writing "another energy efficient move will be to properly insulate homes. In fact, new homes could be pre-fabricated in factories and fitted on-site to reduce gaps where heat can escape." Milman also notes that "systemic changes will need to take place to make housing denser and centered around transit lines and walkable communities to reduce car use, as well as a concerted effort to make homes resilient to the storms and fires spurred by the climate crisis."

The Future We Want
The Future We Want. credit: Elon Musk announcing solar shingles

But the overarching theme of the article and the "electrify everything" school is people can have it all, the house with the solar roof and the electric car in the garage and the batteries on the wall, the future we want. The problem is that we can't; the grid and the generators still have to be there and they have to be big. As Candace Pearson and Nadav Malin of BuildingGreen wrote:

"Contrary to what one might assume, the cost of the electric grid is not driven by how many kilowatt-hours are consumed over the course of the year, but mainly by the peak demand that that grid must serve. There must be enough power generators, transmission lines, and substations to deliver whatever power is needed on the hottest or coldest (depending on the climate) day of the year. More infrastructure must be added if that peak goes up."

Don't get me wrong: We love solar panels and think every building should be covered with them and we want an electric car in every garage. But the first thing we have to do is reduce demand with good old boring insulation and caulk. Yes, we have to electrify everything, but we have to put efficiency first.