Kentucky’s Solar Pioneer

I know most of you have already seen this, but I must always shine the light on one of our most important citizens.  Unfortunately, the sub-head below says it all about our mind-set here:

Over 30 years old, Richard Levine’s Raven Run Solar House is still an energy-efficient anomaly

by Campbell Wood, Chevy Chaser Magazine

September 28, 2010

Lexington, KY – In May, the American Solar Energy Society awarded Lexington’s Richard Levine, an internationally recognized architect and University of Kentucky College of Design professor, with its prestigious Passive Solar Pioneer Award. The award, now in its 31st year, honored Levine for his 40-year career in advancing solar designs and applications for sustainable living.

Currently, Levine is working with cutting-edge energy efficiency design recently developed in Europe. He says that when combined with solar features, these new approaches to building will make net-zero energy housing much more affordable. A net-zero building uses efficient design and renewable energy technology to generate enough energy to offset, over the course of a year, the energy provided by utilities. Levine sees such buildings as part of the path for Kentucky to better meet its challenging energy future.

Levine joined the UK architecture department in 1965. Then with the 1973 Arab oil embargo, a heightened public consciousness surrounding the finite limit of fossil fuels became palpable, and interest in alternative energy sources began to crescendo.

“[The oil crisis] introduced an entirely new sensibility, that on the one hand, fossil fuels are not forever,” Levine said. “On the other hand, there’s only one permanent source of energy – the sun. In fact, the sun is the source of all fossil fuel energy. Fossil fuels are stored solar energy.”

After the crisis, and while its ramifications were still reverberating throughout the U.S., Levine and his late wife, Anne Kemper Frye, decided to build a home that would use a combination of active and passive solar systems as its major heating source, in turn reducing their need for fossil-fuel-derived energy. The Raven Run Solar House, built in 1975, sits in the midst of woodlands in southern Fayette County. With the energy crisis bringing a surge of interest to renewable energy designs and technologies, the house garnered attention worldwide, with articles appearing in professional and popular publications.

The Raven Run house features an array of active solar panels on its south-facing side, angled optimally to receive sunshine. One of Levine’s principled approaches in design is to combine functions to cut cost and increase efficiency, whenever possible. His patented solar panels also function as roofing. Standing inside the living room, Levine opens a series of wooden shutters revealing his “sundows,” long windows that allow for passive heating of the space and lots of daylight. The sundows alternate with the active solar panels. Sunlight warms the air inside the solar panels. The air gets circulated under the house passing through a bin containing 80 tons of crushed stone. The stones store the heat, which warms the house as needed. Levine insulated the house exceeding the standards of the day, and he designed his own energy efficient windows throughout the house. An attached greenhouse works synergistically with the house, sometimes contributing heat, sometimes receiving it from the house. Later added backup systems include a geo-thermal heat pump and a wood-burning boiler.

The home has a spacious and beautiful interior, and ample office space. From the outside the facade is an impressive sight with the mass of glazing across its sloped roof. But if he had it to do over again, Levine said he would build it differently to not include an active solar system. “It ended up being very expensive,” he said. It was also labor intensive, as the solar features were all custom-designed and hand built. With the knowledge he has acquired in the past 30- years, and the new solar technologies that have surfaced since then, Levine says he would start with the passive house approach, building an extremely energy efficient building that would need much less in PV panels to bring it to net-zero.

“The houses that we’re designing now, which perform better than this house, are much less expensive,” he said, adding that they can also be designed to suit conventional tastes.

Next to the house is a small building that is home to CSC Design Studio, of which Levine is principal architect. Atop the studio Levine recently had 30 photovoltaic (PV) panels mounted and angled to collect solar energy, which gets converted into household useable alternating current electricity. There are no storage batteries for this system. Surplus electricity gets routed to the utility company, Bluegrass Energy, which feeds it to other customers and credits Levine’s energy bill. The PV panels have made his home net zero, meaning that there are a good many days when his house is generating more energy than it’s consuming. CSC Design Studio’s website (www.cscdesignstudio.com) has a function where visitors can watch the real-time display that tracks the performance of the PV system.

Inside the studio Levine introduces his two design and research associates, Casey Mather and Michael Hughes, both former students of Levine at UK. Also visiting is CSC’s Middle East associate, Taqi Radmard. Another CSC associate is UK professor Ernest Yanarella, who cofounded the Center for Sustainable Cities with Levine at UK. The Design Studio motto is posted right there on the office wall: “Sustainability-Driven Design.” Levine has consulted and worked on sustainability in urban design projects all over the world. At the time of this interview, he was preparing to leave for Austria in a few days to continue work on a series of studies commissioned by the city of Vienna and the National Bank of Austria. He has also worked on projects in China, Korea, India, North Africa and the Middle East.

Levine says that in the 1970s the United States led the way in solar research and development. But that lead, he says, went to the Europeans. “They (Europeans) have been developing it ever since,” he said, “and they’re a decade ahead of us in all of these applications.”

One related development that has emerged from Germany and Austria is the “passive house.” Not to be confused with passive solar, the term refers to a set of far-reaching energy efficiency building techniques and standards. “We’re one of a handful of firms bringing back these methods to this country and designing extremely tight, extremely well-insulated houses that will save in the neighborhood of 90 percent of the electricity that a (conventionally) well-insulated new house uses in this country,” Levine said.

Levine sees as inevitable the ending of Kentucky’s cheap energy as areas in Eastern Kentucky run out of easily accessible coal and as regulations and restrictions on the coal industry come into play. “A wise person would be one who’d be looking to their own future as well as Kentucky’s future,” he said.

He sees energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy as vital matters in planning for the future. “It’s not a question of if we will do it,” he said, “it’s when we will do it, and if we can plan for a smooth transition to other resources.”

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