Figure 1 — Lights of the United States power grid prior to July 2, 1996.

Figure 1 — Lights of the United States power grid prior to July 2, 1996.

Renewable and Sustainable Energy

A new application of the Golden Rule

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by Ward Huffman, Senior Financial Specialist, Denver Regional Office, U.S. Department of Energy. Mr. Huffman included the following disclaimer: “This article does not endorse any specific builder, nor does it represent the U.S. Department of Energy endorsing any specific builder or product. It is meant to illustrate the advantages of energy efficiency and renewable energy in homes and commercial structures of Monolithic Dome construction.”

The Monolithic Dome is an idea whose time has come.

It is a structure that is extremely energy efficient and sustainable without sacrificing the quality of life that we have come to expect in our homes and buildings.

Sustainable Development

Many people and organizations that I talk to are unclear about what I mean by sustainable. I offer the following definitions:

Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (United Nations, 1987)

Sustainability refers to a very old and simple concept – the ability to keep going over the long haul. Think of it as extending the Golden Rule through time, so that you do unto future generations, as you would have them do unto you. (Robert Gilman)

Sustainability is a concept that is easy to recognize when you see it and even easier to recognize when it doesn’t exist. Consider two satellite photographs taken at night that show the lights of the United States power grid. (Figures 1, 2)

New versus Old

Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, once said, “The future may require not so much having a new idea as stopping having an old idea.”

And Albert Einstein once said, “The world we have created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.”

Both of these quotes apply to Monolithic Domes and to the idea of sustainability.

Energy Overview

In 1996 fully 84% of all energy consumption was in the form of burning hydrocarbons as coal, petroleum and natural gas. An additional 8% came from nuclear power. Only 8% came from renewable sources such as hydroelectric, bio-fuels, geothermal and solar.

In the United States today, we import in excess of 50% of the oil that we burn. Our oil trade deficit is in excess of $50 billion each year and is growing rapidly. U.S. consumers (5% of the world’s people) used 25% of all the oil in 1997. Oil use is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy generation is the number one cause of environmental damage worldwide. Electric generation is the world’s chief polluter generating 66% of the sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain; 33% of carbon dioxide that is the chief villain of global warming; and most of the high-level radioactive waste.

Contrary to popular belief, the major oil companies in the world are aware, and are concerned about these issues. Enron Corporation has created a new company, Enron Renewable Energy Corporation to develop solar and wind power plants.

Royal Dutch/Shell Group through their Shell International Renewables division will invest $500 million in renewables over the next five years.

British Petroleum is predicting that their sales of solar products will experience a 10-fold increase over the next decade. Because of this they are investing over $1 billion in renewable research.

The wealth and economic prosperity of our communities should be of paramount interest to each of us, and yet we are willingly allowing much of our wealth to leak away. Of every dollar we spend on energy, 70 to 80 cents immediately exits our community.

In 1982, Houston, Texas paid $3.3 billion to cool buildings. Energy use in our homes costs us an average of over $2000 per household per year. This is over $300 billion nationwide. Buildings use 33% of all U.S. energy and 67% of all electricity produced. Twenty-nine percent of all global carbon emissions are energy related.

To bring this cost down to the family level, let us look at a moderately large single family home. With current energy prices, it could cost the homeowner $3,600 per year to heat and cool. But if homeowners invested $1000 in an energy efficient refrigerator, another $1000 in insulation and $800 to install the insulation, they could experience a 50% decrease in their utility bills. This would provide an additional $1,800 per year, every year, in disposable income. This is tax-free money and far in excess of the benefit of President Bush’s tax reduction that is being resisted as too extravagant. In addition, this investment of $2,800 would be spent in the local economy, which would encourage jobs and wealth in the community – not in the Middle East.

Monolithic Domes: What is the big deal?

The Monolithic Dome home in Figure 3 is located in an evergreen forest indicating that the climate is temperate, typical of much of the U.S. and Canada. It has approximately 3600 square feet of living space, R60 walls and ceiling, low emissive windows and low flow water fixtures. The owner is experiencing an energy savings of over $2000 per year.

The Monolithic Dome home in Figure 4 also has R60 walls and ceiling and low emissive windows. Its owner experiences energy costs that total $240 per year. That’s less than many families pay each month for their energy use.

The Monolithic Dome facility in Figure 5 experiences energy use that is reduced 90% from standard building code. The energy cost savings is $93,700 per year. There were no additional costs of construction over conventional building costs.

Cost Analysis

The cost of building a Monolithic Dome is approximately the same as building a conventional (old idea) building. The energy benefits are huge – far in excess of the most energy efficient conventional structure.


With the Monolithic Dome method of construction, the homeowner or builder has the opportunity to be fully self-sufficient. By using photovoltaics and/or wind generators to provide electrical power and ground source heat pumps for heating and cooling, the homeowner can become completely independent from the utility power grid. This fits all of the definitions of sustainability cited earlier.

This method of construction combined with the new technology of converting solar energy to electrical energy, of geothermal heating and cooling, and of energy-efficient windows makes it possible for new homeowners to be completely comfortable and self-sufficient – whether they live in California or the Yukon. At the same time, generating noxious emissions, greenhouse gasses and power outages would be eliminated. That truly defines sustainability.

Why is the Monolithic Dome GREEN?

Figure 2 — The same power grid after a single branch fell on a single power line in the Northwest.

Figure 2 — The same power grid after a single branch fell on a single power line in the Northwest.

Figure 3 — Kneeland residence in Soldotna, Alaska.

Figure 3 — Kneeland residence in Soldotna, Alaska.

Figure 4 — Click dome located in Bandera, Texas.

Figure 4 — Click dome located in Bandera, Texas.

Figure 5 — Frontier Elementary in Payson, Arizona.

Figure 5 — Frontier Elementary in Payson, Arizona.