Introducing green energy into new buildings

Solar panels on buildings.

This article explores how construction companies and developers are leading the way in designing buildings with the latest environmental energy solutions.

Although Covid-19 has understandably dominated the headlines this year, the ongoing climate emergency has remained a high priority around the world. The unprecedented lockdowns earlier this year highlighted how polluted urban skylines normally are, and how inefficient the traditional nine-to-five office culture has been for both people and cities. Because while climate change affects the whole planet, its repercussions will be particularly acute in urban areas, with less scope for rainfall runoff and higher levels of ill health caused by particulates and pollution.

At the same time, melting polar ice caps and rising seawater levels may prove catastrophic for coastal regions, while higher temperatures could make already arid regions completely uninhabitable.

However, reducing mankind’s impact on the planet requires more than electric vehicles and working from home. It needs manmade structures to minimise the harm they cause to the environment – or even contribute positively towards it. Alongside innovations like living walls and recycled materials being used in façade tiles and cladding panels, architects and construction companies are increasingly incorporating green energy solutions into new buildings.

The following techniques are increasingly being adopted by builders and developers to minimise demand for fossil fuels. Some buildings even generate their own power and heat, providing additional income streams and contributing to decarbonisation targets:

District heating systems

District heating systems aren’t new. In 1950, the Churchill Gardens housing estate in London was already being warmed by waste heat from Battersea Power Station, which was pumped under the River Thames into what remains the UK’s largest thermal store. Today, similar schemes are growing in popularity, across residential and mixed-use developments. Around 98 per cent of buildings in Copenhagen are now powered in this way, and new properties tap into an established district heating network as they would conventional utility services.

Modern district heating systems can also contain cooling networks. These slash electricity consumption and CO2 output compared to conventional air conditioning systems, harnessing natural resources like rivers or household waste reprocessing. Indeed, the burning of recycled or waste materials is a key power source for some district heating systems, with specialised biomass boilers burning waste wood.

Building-specific power sources

Falling unit costs have accelerated the mass adoption of green technologies like solar panels, which can be cost-effectively installed onto pitched roofs. Solar thermal systems are also great in countries with high levels of sunshine, heating up water using the sun’s energy. They’re a modern alternative to the well-established principle of heat pumps, which are hard to retrofit into older buildings with cavities and draughts. Conversely, ground source heat pumps can be integrated into a new-build alongside other essential groundworks, ensuring they work effectively from day one.

Biomass boilers are popular with many commercial property developers, especially in countries with economic incentives for energy reduction, or national power systems which can buy back excess energy from individual customers. And while wind turbines are an obvious choice for on-site energy generation, small hydroelectric systems can be comparably priced if a commercial building stands beside a fast-running water source.

Insulation and recycled energy

Flat roofs on larger buildings are increasingly sporting urban gardens, which provide exceptional heat insulation while encouraging biodiversity and reducing the likelihood of internal flooding. The latter risk can also be diminished through rainwater harvesting, recycling water for potable needs like toilet flushing. This can halve water usage in domestic premises, with even greater gains achievable in commercial buildings with bigger roof volumes.  

Finally, heat recovery and ventilation systems continue to evolve in new buildings, where they can be integrated into the sub-frame structure far more easily than being retrofitted into an existing building. They work alongside standalone elements like electrochromic glass and LED lighting, collectively helping to minimise energy consumption from fossil fuel combustion – estimated to be responsible for 75 per cent of manmade greenhouse gas emissions in America.

A glimpse into the future

With net zero carbon targets being set around the world, there’s little remaining doubt about the catastrophic consequences of climate inaction. It’s in everyone’s interest to ensure new residential, commercial and industrial buildings incorporate as many green energy technologies as possible. From underground heat exchangers to rooftop turbines and solar panels, most new buildings now incorporate at least one form of green energy production. And with countries like Norway and Iceland already producing almost all their energy from renewable sources, tomorrow’s skyscrapers and suburbs will play crucial roles in the mass rollout of green technologies.

This article was written by Neil Cumins, writer at PropertyWorkshop.com.

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