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Energy Efficiency is an Opportunity

(Update from 9/26/13, you can now listen to the piece more easily, here.  Scroll to 25:40 to hear my piece directly)

Thursday night (9/12/13) on Montana Public Radio, Energetechs Project Manager Skander Spies will be talking about his experience as a member of AERO, and why the proposed energy code updates being debated in Helena next week are a good thing for everyone. Tune in at 5:45pm to 89.1 FM (in the Missoula area) to hear the commentary piece, listen online, or read the text below.

PassiveHouse in Montana, super energy efficient house

PassiveHouse is here in Montana. Congratulations to The Gallatin Valley Habitat team on completing an awesome project.

“This past May I attended two meetings full of contractors, architects, and planners. One was a “listening” session for the public to provide commentary on the adoption of a new energy code for all buildings in the State of Montana. The other was a public meeting of a group called the Northern Rockies Passive House Alliance. Both meetings were about energy efficiency in buildings, but the tone between the two couldn’t have been more different. At the listening session, I heard a lot about why any energy code improvements at all will cause reckless damage to a fragile industry. Energy efficiency was seen as a threat, and I left feeling hopeless.

At the second meeting, I listened to two hours of healthy dialogue about the future of the building industry. About how a more aggressive voluntary standard can increase comfort and value for building owners, while drastically reducing energy use and innovating the marketplace. Here, energy efficiency was an opportunity, and I left feeling ready to get back to work. The new state code updates aim for a 15 percent reduction in energy use, the voluntary standard aims for 85 percent. While “green building” is all the rage, meeting these standards while maintaining the budget can be a daunting task that many contractors feel uncertain taking on.

I serve as the secretary of the board for the second group, the Northern Rockies Passive House Alliance. We are a collection of contractors and architects dedicated to promoting an aggressive building energy consumption standard called “PassiveHouse.” I also work full time as a project manager for Energetechs Construction, a small Missoula company that specializes in creating exceptionally comfortable and energy efficient buildings.

Construction wasn’t where I expected my career to take me. I finished university with a degree in mechanical engineering and got a job creating computer models of low energy use buildings. After a few years though, it seemed my models and recommendations never really hit home. There was a lot more to reducing energy use than computer simulations and consulting reports so I started looking for the missing pieces. I came to Montana by chance to attend an AERO annual meeting. I found Energetechs because they knew a lot about PassiveHouse, and I wanted more hands on experience. I joined their team and have gotten to work on some of the most energy efficient buildings in Montana.It has also brought me face to face with the gritty challenges facing the green building community.

If you lived in the 70s you probably remember some popularity around the term “passive solar design.” The idea caught on big in Germany, and scientists there formalized the design and construction principles into a rigorous standard that aims to reduce building energy use by 75-90% compared to the current American codes. PassiveHouse represents the practical limit as to how far it is possible to reduce energy use and represents the future of where our industry can go. In Montana, energy bills cost families and businesses $1.8 Billion each year. If we built every residential and small commercial building to the German standard, we would have $1.4 Billion to invest back into our communities.

Beyond the bottom line, the Montana landscape is one of the best parts of living here. The biggest environmental impact of a building comes from the energy it uses over the course of its lifetime. Delivering major reductions in energy use requires innovative design, more involved communication, and new methods and materials that can seem unnecessary or unfamiliar to many contractors. Cutting edge standards like PassiveHouse pave the way for new methods and materials in the marketplace- that’s why the team I work with practices our PassiveHouse knowledge on almost every project we do, even though we haven’t built a whole certified building yet. The practice has taught us how to meet other standards, like the newly proposed code, more easily and with less incremental cost. This practice has also shown us that every time we improve the energy efficiency of a building, we also improve the comfort, indoor air quality, and overall durability for the building owner.

The construction industry has always been required to adapt to new standards. The proposed energy code isn’t nearly so drastic as PassiveHouse, and it is a good step in the right direction. Better energy codes ensure better buildings for owners and investors, and a better future for our kids. Urge your representative to support the new code in the next legislative session- I am certain that more efficient buildings are an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

In Missoula, I’m Skander Spies for the Alternative Energy / Resources Organization.  AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at”

montana energy consumption, energy efficiency in Montana

Montana State Data from the EIA. Visit for more!

1 comment to Energy Efficiency is an Opportunity

  • Brenda Coffman

    Wish I knew how to get your program on my radio in Dubuque,IA. Your oldest cousin was born in Berlin, Germany in 1966 and, while I don’t remember a lot of discussion about solar energy, I do know I learned how to get by with as little energy as possible. Hot water in the kitchen was provided by a tiny heater over the sink. Laundry was mostly dried outdoors or over the radiator. Stone walls of our house were thick (12-16″?) and the radiators were turned on twice a day for about 2 hours in the morning and around the 12-2 dinner hour. In the winter we used a down comforter to keep warm. And we were never cold although I probably wore sweaters in the house most of the time.

    A lot of what I learned was common sense and that, combined with the industry advances guys like you are using, could save our country a lot of energy expense.

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