An Ounce of Insulation is Worth a Pound of Petroleum

Energy expert Vaclav Smil takes a hard look at modern construction, and he likes what he sees

3 min read
illustration of person in house with inside and outside temperature readings
Illustration: J.D. King

First impressions often lead to wrong conclusions. I well remember receiving a friendly welcome at the residence of a European ambassador in Ottawa and, in the very next sentence, being told that this house was perfect to withstand Canadian winters because it was made of real brick and stone—not like those flimsy North American wooden things, with hollow walls. My hosts then swiftly moved to other matters and, in any case, I did not have the heart to belittle the insulating qualities of their handsome home.

The error is easy to understand, but mass and density are better indicators of sturdiness than of insulating capability. A brick wall obviously looks more substantial and protective than a wall framed with narrow wooden studs and covered on the outside with a sheet of thin plywood and aluminum siding and on the inside with vulnerable gypsum drywall. Angry European men do not make holes in brick walls.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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