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October 26, 2000 Researcher opens window on Age of Energy



Photo of Andreas Athienitis and graduate students

Andreas Athienitis, centre, is flanked by graduate students Kwang Park and Thanos Tzembelikos, with their high-tech window, on the roof of the BE annex, on Guy and Ste-Catherine.

by Debbie Hum

Rising oil prices may come with a silver lining for the environment. In fact, Andreas Athienitis, Professor of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering, confidently predicts that the 21st century will be the age of energy.

A researcher in energy transfer and efficiency in buildings, with an emphasis on the use of solar and other renewable energies, Athienitis says the 21st-century house will eventually resemble a small power plant — possibly self-sufficient, producing heat for heating, energy for cooling, electricity for lighting, and hydrogen for running electric cars.

With support from industry and NSERC and FCAR grants, Athienitis is working on several projects related to the thermal performance of smart buildings, including refining the simplest, most cost-effective and commonly used solar energy device available, the window.

“People often think of the use of solar energy in terms of active solar collectors,” said Athienitis, and while his research does extend to still relatively elusive and expensive energy-producing technologies such as photovoltaic cells, he points out that windows passively provide buildings with the sun’s free light and heat. Window technology is constantly being improved, becoming increasingly sophisticated, energy-efficient and affordable.

At an outdoor test room on the rooftop of one of Concordia’s downtown buildings, Athienitis and graduate students Thanos Tzembelikos and Kwang Park are testing a new high-technology window which features motor-operated blinds between two panes of glass.

Solar sensors measure the light and heat outdoors while a computer adjusts the window blind throughout the day to optimize the amount of daylight and heat entering the room. “Sometimes we only want the visible portion of solar energy, and other times we also want the heat,” Athienitis explained. The optimal use of solar energy through windows yields meaningful savings in a building’s energy consumption in lighting, heating and air-conditioning, he added.

The test room is equipped with a radiant heating system in its flooring, part of a separate research project on optimization of the indoor environment. Athienitis is also working with the Montreal General Hospital on thermal comfort in surgical operating rooms, where patients frequently complain of feeling cold while the medical team reports feeling too hot.

“The idea of considering the building as one thermal system is very important, and facilitates the efficient use of solar energy and other renewable energies,” Athienitis said. Improvements in the building envelope bring about greater energy efficiency and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, both international goals established at the 1997 Kyoto conference on climate change.

The self-sufficient building of the future will combine technologies such as fuel cells (battery-like devices that generate electricity) and photovoltaic cells (which convert light into electricity) with renewable energies such as solar, hydro and wind.

Athienitis stressed the importance of diversifying energy sources. Quebec, for example, depends mainly on hydroelectricity, which is produced far away from city centres and may be adversely affected by calamities such earthquakes and ice storms, he said.

“People could have stayed in their homes during the [1998] ice storm had their houses been equipped with a back-up photovoltaic system,” Athienitis said. Photovoltaics — such as the panels on solar calculators — are still a relatively expensive technology to implement on a bigger scale because they must be designed into a building, rather than an “add-on.”

However, Athienitis pointed out that when integrated into a building, they become more cost effective because they perform two roles, as an energy-producing element and a wall, window or roof element, at the same time. The price of photovoltaics is expected to drop with mass production.

Athienitis also noted that hydroelectric power is cheaper than power derived from solar energy because it is subsidized by government. “Somebody paid for the construction of all those dams and the costs of transporting the electricity from James Bay to here.”

How quickly changes will occur in the 21st century — and Athienitis is sure they will — mostly depends on one factor: “If the price of oil rises, this big change in energy production, which will lead to many changes in lifestyle, is going to happen very fast,” he said.