Notes from Abroad
I just returned from three weeks in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and Japan. Residential energy use remains important in these countries, but in surprisingly different ways, and for different reasons. And energy is being saved in characteristically un-American ways.
One group of building scientists gathered to discuss new technologies and designs to reduce space heating in very cold climates (as in Scandinavia, Canada, and northern Japan). Curiously, the group quickly agreed that the energy used for space heating, while still important, was tamed, or at least the heat loss through the envelope was greatly reduced. The experts expressed concern that electricity used to support more complex space-heating systems-ventilation and exhaust fans, plus various pumps-continues to rise and now represents a significant chunk of an efficient house's electricity consumption. The group noted that space-heating energy in new, well-built homes is often the third largest end use, after water heating and appliances. The energy used for water heating has hardly changed during the last decade, and the number of appliances continues to increase. Even though the meeting was supposed to focus on space heating, the experts spent more time discussing how to reduce appliance electricity use.
In both Europe and Japan, residential energy conservation policies are being driven by the governments' commitments to reduce their CO2 emissions. Japan feels that its other sectors (industry and transportation) are already efficient, so that reductions in CO2 emissions will have to be found in the residential buildings sector. As a result, Japan is the first industrialized country outside North America to establish appliance efficiency standards. Curiously, air conditioners and televisions are the first targets. In order to give manufacturers time to switch out of CFC-based technologies, the Japanese government has postponed refrigerator efficiency standards.
This absence of regulatory push on refrigerators may be regretted by the Japanese manufacturers. As an article in this issue shows, Japan is falling behind both Europe and the United States with respect to efficiency gains (see United States Leads in Refrigerator Efficiency, p. 8). Indeed, an enterprising Japanese company recently began importing U.S. refrigerators. It sells them for less than half the cost of a typical Japanese unit. But the clincher is that the U.S. units are also twice as large and use up to 30% less electricity!
Europe is on its way to region-wide energy labels for its appliances. This is no small feat; many cultural issues had to be resolved before it could happen. Differences appeared in mundane, but essential ways, such as energy test procedures. For example, a washing machine's performance could not be evaluated until a test procedure was developed and a rigorous definition of clean was established. It turned out that the Germans and Italians had very different definitions of clean clothes!
The most troubling topic never received formal discussion, but it kept popping up: Why are the kids getting sick? And is it the buildings' fault? Anecdotal evidence from the United States, Europe, Scandinavia, and Japan suggests that an alarmingly high fraction of children are developing asthmalike symptoms and allergies. Scandinavian studies indicate that almost one-third of all children have some sort of asthma or allergy. Japan can point to similar increases, even though outdoor air pollution levels have fallen. The building scientists are wondering if the indoor environment is to blame. And if buildings aren't responsible, what is?