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Why do a superinsulated retrofit?

There are three main reasons for contemplating a superinsulated retrofit: global warming, peak oil / peak natural gas, and price and security considerations.

1. Energy conservation because of global warming.   

Energy for housing is about 20% of the U. S. national energy budget.  Of household energy, space heating is roughly 50%, electricity is about 35%, and water heating is about 15%.  We can go with solar or wind energy to take care of the electric component, but the only way to reduce space heating for a given building is to insulate.  Turning down the thermostat, wearing a sweater, sealing cracks, etc., will take care of only small increments of household energy.  To really take a whack at it -- reduce by 50% or more -- you have to deal with the basic insulation.

Global warming is a significant threat which literally threatens the human race.  We need to reduce carbon emissions by 80-90% in a few decades.  Most homes are heated by natural gas in North America.  It's true that natural gas contributes the least to global warming of all the fossil fuels, but global warming is a major event that threatens humans with extinction.  We need to reduce use of natural gas for heating as much as possible, or this 80-90% will not be obtainable.  

2. Energy conservation because of peak oil and peak natural gas.

There's another reason for energy conservation, and that is that we are faced with declining supplies of natural gas (the main home heating fuel in the U. S.).  (The homes that are heated with oil have to deal with peak oil, already widely discussed.)  

Peak natural gas has already happened in North America, and unlike oil, natural gas is technically quite difficult to import.  Unless we spend billions or trillions of dollars on infrastructure to import natural gas, and unless export capacity is expanded overseas, we face the real possibility of natural gas shortages in a fairly short time, perhaps 5 to 20 years.  For political reasons, it is unlikely that this infrastructure investment will happen.  Even if we do, we may find that we have invested hugely in a dying infrastructure, as world-wide natural gas is expected to peak in about 10-15 years or so.   

Update 10/27/2008: the natural gas apocalypse has been postponed (hurray!) because of shale gas and other "unconventional" sources of natural gas.  "Shale gas" is something that we've known about for years, but no one knew how to get it until recently.  Shale gas wells, though, decline quite steeply.  For a good summary of shale gas and "unconventional" natural gas generally, check out this page on The Oil Drum web site.  Hopefully we will use this extra time to do something constructive rather than just twiddle our thumbs and continue to act as if natural gas will last forever. 

We could of course switch to wood, but if we want to avoid instant deforestation, we will want to reduce our wood heating requirements to the minimum anyway as well, so we'd still need to insulate.  (See my discussion of wood under "What are the alternatives?" to superinsulation.)  No matter what fuel we use short-term or long-term, we will want to insulate our buildings as much as possible.

3. Price considerations.  

At current prices, a superinsulated retrofit makes no sense whatsoever. A superinsulated retrofit will cost in the region of $30,000 - $50,000 or more, depending on your situation.  For insulation to pay for itself in 20 years (say), and assuming your retrofit can cut your heating requirements by 2/3 (say), your heating bill would need to be on the order of $3000 a winter or more, about 10 times more than most people actually pay.  

But it is possible that in 5 to 10 years prices will be this high, and thus it would be justified financially, either because of shortages or because of the threat of human extinction due to global warming.  

Scariest evidence to date: Matt Simmons ends a talk on peak oil in which he outlines all these dire predictions of how we're facing declining oil supplies, and then concludes by saying, "and this doesn't even discuss the situation with respect to natural gas, which is even more serious for North America."  David Hughes has addressed this question in discussing the "natural gas treadmill."

If you can't afford to insulate this drastically, that's a good excuse, but we could afford it, so we did.  By doing it now, you avoid the rush later when the nation panics about the coming energy crisis.