Via Huffington Post, there's an intriguing interview about NASA's Sustainability Base at the Ames Research Center. Jennifer Grayson's interview is a look at what can happen when technology is put to use to address the problems we're facing with energy and resources.
The 50,000-square-foot lunar-shaped structure is the greenest government building ever built, as well as both a testament to and test bed for NASA aerospace technology. The Base produces more energy than it consumes, powered in part by fuel cell technology developed to send the Curiosity rover to Mars. It will eventually use 90 percent less water than a conventional building, recycling its water via a version of a system deployed on the International Space Station. And all of this technology is housed in a striking LEED Platinum–certified structure that maximizes airflow and sunlight to such an extent that for 325 days out of the year, no artificial lighting is necessary.emphasis added
Is this possible anywhere else? Well, different locations will call for different solutions - but the principles are simple. The building is designed to take full advantage - and full cognizance - of local conditions, i.e.: wind, weather, sun, terrain. Materials are locally sourced and chosen to be recyclable. The building contains sensors and control systems that make it not just a smart building but a genius building, as the interview notes. When people can see in real time what their behavior means in terms of energy use, water consumption, etc., they can choose to act intelligently in their own self interest.
The main reason more structures aren't routinely built this way is because of social inertia, lack of awareness of what's possible, and the old trade off of minimizing construction costs at the expense of operating costs. (Cost of purchase versus cost of ownership.) Climate change is going to change that equation, one way or another. Sustainability isn't an abstract concept any more; it's essential - and NASA is showing what's possible. The reduction in water use alone should be generating headlines in California and the rest of the southwest, in the midst of drought.
There's always been a complaint about "Why are we spending all that money on space when we have needs down here on earth?" This is one answer to that plaint: learning to maintain life in the hostile environment of space scales up to the larger problem of maintaining life on a planet in space. The constraints of working in a small closed system like a spacecraft or a space station make the problems clearer in a way that a planetary scale closed system can obscure. And the view from space gives us a perspective on our problems we could never get solely from the ground.
The good news is that it looks like answers are there if we seek them out and choose to employ them.