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An intelligent ecosystem

Editorial | May 1, 2016 | By:

Last Friday (April 22), I’d meant to wear my original “Earth Day” button, purchased in 1970 as a callow youth in Morris, Minn.; but as a jaded professional in Minneapolis, Minn., I remembered to grab earrings but left the button sitting next to one that says “CTHULHU FOR PRESIDENT: If you’re tired of voting for the lesser of two evils”(a sentiment I’m finding oddly useful in this election year).

When I got to work, however, the U.S. Census Bureau had sent me a “Profile America” email about our progress in renewable energy and the environment: $9.7 billion in revenues in 2012 for electric power generation using renewable energy resources, up 46.5 percent from $6.6 billion in 2007; 716 wind, geothermal, biomass, solar and other electric power generation businesses in 2012, more than double the number (312) in 2007. Other figures weren’t so promising, however; 59,558 was the estimated number of occupied housing units across the country using solar energy (in 2014) as their primary source of heat—less than 1 percent of all homes.

In Bruce Wright’s article “Let there be (flexible) light,” the increasing efficiencies of thin film and flexible photovoltaics are making them more attractive to architects; according to Luca Bonci with Italy-based Solbian Energie Alternative, “What is missing are the solutions, products and ready-to-use applications. These are in initial stages of development.” With smart fabrics, the technology has also reached the point at which cost-effective commercialization is beginning to happen, at “the intersection of textiles and technology,” as Qaizar Hassonjee tells us.

The market in smart fabrics was up 18 percent last year to about $1.9 billion worldwide, according to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker during the Smart Fabrics Summit held April 11 in Washington, D.C. So far, however, the technology and the target markets are focused on wearable technology—keeping users healthy, comfortable and safe. What we really need is fabrics, electronic or otherwise, that can do the same for our homes and workplaces.

PAMA’s 50-city energy study clearly showed that fabric awnings and exterior shades can reduce home cooling costs by more than 50 percent. A comprehensive energy rating, labeling and certification program for window attachments is now underway, under the auspices of the Attachments Energy Rating Council. The environmental and economic benefits of large fabric-roofed structures (such as sports stadiums) are now well-known to architects. Specialty fabrics are environmental experts, but generally passively rather than actively. If smart fabrics can heat and cool and generate electricity for people, why not for buildings?

Before Earth Day 2017, I hope to feature a number of fabrics, and fabricators, that can help homes take better care of themselves … if we still have an intelligent ecosystem after this November. See you in Charlotte!

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