In warming Mediterranean, a model of energy-efficient building

In Athens, Sol Energy Hellas is headquartered in a building powered entirely by renewable energy.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Cooling effect: Alexios Paizis (l.), a mechanical engineer with the Athens-based firm Sol Energy Hellas, shows off the heating and cooling system of a prototype building that has been designed to cut energy usage by 95 percent of normal levels. The building uses solar energy as well as geothermal heat pumps. Not only is it eco-friendly, it will also save money on energy use after about 11 years.

The headquarters of Sol Energy Hellas looks like any other building in its nondescript Athens neighborhood. But below ground hums a vast network of pipes and machines that make this building unlike any other: It's energy independent and powered entirely by renewable energy.

In the European Union, the only part of the Mediterranean for which comprehensive statistics exist, energy to heat, cool and power buildings accounts for 40 percent of energy consumption – and therefore a large percentage of the region's climate change-related CO2 emissions.

But a new breed of architects and engineers is beginning to tackle energy usage in buildings by adopting a variety of techniques that can dramatically reduce or even eliminate energy consumption in offices and homes, especially for heating and cooling. In the sunny, hot Mediterranean region, electricity use for air conditioning is already surging and climate models predict that even more energy will be required in the future to keep people cool. But smarter, more energy efficient buildings could be part of the answer.

New EU regulations will soon require the Mediterranean region's northern members to implement a sweeping new program aimed at making new buildings more energy-efficient. Much can be done through simple, low-tech steps like using proper insulation, weatherproofing openings, installing double-glazed windows, and even putting on shutters.

The Sol Energy Hellas building, built by the renewable energy company as a pilot project with EU funding and the cooperation of the National Technical University of Athens, uses many of these techniques. But it goes much further, providing a glimpse of the kind of buildings that might soon become common.

The building uses solar and thermal energy to keep the building toasty in winter and cool even in Athens's increasingly hot summers. It can even store energy for use months later. None of the technology is new, but the builders say it is the first to show how these technologies can be combined to create a building that is self-sufficient for heating and cooling.

An increasing number of people and companies are beginning to adopt renewable energy technology in their buildings, says Alexios Paizis, an engineer at Sol Energy Hellas, because now the economic benefits are clear. The company has clients across the Mediterranean Basin and as far away as Tanzania.

"Very few people do it because they want to save fossil fuels," he says. "They do it because they want to save money."

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