Second Vermont Republic

A citizen movement committed to restoring Vermont to an independent republic, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness unimpeded by the demands of an imperial, corrupt and disintegrating United States.

Resilient Design: Vermont’repreneur Bill Maclay on architect’ing “New Net Zero” (INTERVIEW)


Q. So “Net Zero.” Can you explain this concept?

A. “Net Zero” simply refers to a building, project, community, or even planet that produces more energy from renewable energy than it consumes on an annual basis.

Q. We live in interesting times – concerns about Peak Oil, climate change, endless war, rampant militarism – how does Net Zero offer a solution to this constellation of 21st century problems?

A. Humans have lived in a net zero reality (as opposed to a fossil fuel driven reality) for hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of years. And humans have created incredible works of art, cities, communities, and civilizations without fossil fuel. The fossil fuel era, where civilization has been primarily powered by fossil fuels, will probably be less than 200 years long in total and perhaps closer to 100 years. The primary energy of civilization also is connected to our quality of life. In Vermont the renewable era meant human settlement around village greens with sheep, as well as water powered villages along rivers. Then coal was the force that created large cities with trains, manufacturing, and products. Then oil and auto centric suburban sprawl with community space weakened.

The deeper impacts of fossil fuels are felt through every aspect of society—food grown with 10 times more fossil fuel than solar energy, plastic everything, transportation, and pretty much everything else. Global climate change is simple—a manifestation of our oil addiction. While fossil fuels have been very easy to extract and use and have generated wealth, many other consequences in changing life on the planet are negative. War in the Middle East is triggered by our grasping for the remaining fossil fuels. Like with any addiction  it seems  easier to keep doing what we have done in the past—instead of looking to another future that is healthier.

A net zero future means a human future powered by endless renewable energy that is healthier, more connected to other humans and all natural systems, beautiful and inspiring, and now even less expensive than fossil fuels. If humans survive climate change, it will be because civilization is powered with renewable energy, and transitions rapidly off of fossil fuels.


Q. How did you come to discover “Net Zero”?

A. I pursued architecture as my career to make a better world. I attended a talk in 1970 showing solar powered projects, and decided that I would spend the rest of my life to create renewably powered buildings, communities, and society. Two years later I traveled through Central America to Peru and was inspired by Machu Picchu and Mayan civilization which were “net zero”, renewably powered, and beautiful places to live.

Q. Can you point to three Vermont-based Net Zero projects that best capture your work and vision?

A. A field house at the Putney School in Putney, Renewable NRG Systems offices and manufacturing facility in Hinesburg, and a residence in Middlesex—all of which are included in our book.

Q. Class question. Is “Net Zero” only possible for middle class and rich folks? Can we deploy this work across socioeconomic class lines?

A. Financially net zero is less expensive than fossil fuels. Net zero mobile homes are more comfortable, more resilient and durable and have lower monthly costs than fossil fuel mobile homes. They are available now. Affordable housing can be built that also has lower monthly costs than fossil fuel powered housing. There are three components to making net zero buildings and projects: an energy conserving envelope that consumes 20% or less when compared to typical buildings; efficient mechanical and electrical solutions, typically involving heat pump technology for heating or cooling; and renewable energy, typically photovoltaics for power. All three of these elements can be done with lower monthly payments than for a fossil fuel powered project. Related to that, some lenders are acknowledging this trade-off reality and offering energy efficient mortgages.  These allow homeowners to pay the same amount or sometimes even less each month by allowing the additional capital investment to be financed over the life of the mortgage and understanding that they will realize lower monthly utility bills and in effect offsetting one another.  Additionally, you can have renewable energy on your property that someone else installs and you can pay equal or less than your current cost of electricity from your electric utility.
All of that being true, this is easier for the middle class and wealthier folks. As in many other situations, greater access to capital creates more opportunities for choice. However, organizations like the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board  encouraging net zero mobile homes, Housing Vermont building increasingly lower energy conserving affordable housing, Efficiency Vermont supporting net zero pilot projects,  banks and lenders offering energy efficient mortgage alternatives, and others are moving Vermont closer to a net zero future for everyone.

Q. Are you hopeful about the future?

A. I am very optimistic.

We are living at an incredible time, a turning point in how we power our buildings that will affect every aspect of our lives. I have pursued a renewable path since the 70’s and now is the first time that renewables are not just the best choice, but are the most fiscally prudent choice. Now is a tipping point where we are transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables.  This will transform not only our future but and our children’s future.

And we are at a challenging time as well. Our impact on the planet will not end life overall, but could possibly cause catastrophic changes including extremely detrimental effects to human existence. Our opportunity (and choice) is to follow a path for positive change—to do what we can to create a healthy, vibrant, and inspiring future for our children and their children—and in the process to generate meaning fulfillment, and joy in our own and other’s lives.

Read about more revolutionary ideas at Chelsea Green Publishing.

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2014 by in Arts.

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