I was enthused by the 2011 State of the Union Address where President Barack Obama challenged the United States to have 80% of America’s energy to come from clean energy sources by 2035. At first I thought to myself, “Finally we are doing something about clean energy and climate change.” However, what I did not hear is what we are going to do with the Clean Air Act right NOW. Climate change is currently happening and we are all experiencing it, especially those who live in the Northeast and have to put up with this year’s seemingly never-ending snow. From listening to the experts’ view on this recent weather pattern, the polar ice caps have melted more than normal this past summer and that has injected colder water into the oceans causing extreme weather patterns. There has been a trend of increased rain and snow storms, as they have become the norm over the past few years.
I think 80% is a great goal (knowing that much of the changing climate is attributed to what we put in the air). However, I am skeptical that we can meet this goal if we don’t have a clear plan of action. In addition, our energy needs are rising and the development of clean fuel technologies is lagging. One way to bridge this gap is for everyone to start being a little bit more energy efficient in our lives. We all need to take responsibility of how we are contributing to this problem. We should all examine how we, as individuals, are using energy in our homes and offices and try to conserve more. We can help bridge this gap. It will take effort on all of our parts to start becoming more energy efficient in our everyday lives. For example, I often see buildings using more electricity than is necessary due to inefficient chilled water production or poor lighting design that can easily be remedied. I am also a realist, as these types of reductions will not get us to the 80% but every little bit can help.
Watching some of the news shows such as those on the FOX network who hold the opinion that “Now is not the time to push for the Clean Air Act” just reaffirms my opinion: most people in this country are more concerned with dollars than with saving our planet. I get it – we are losing the race for global financial supremacy to China and India. Frankly, I’m not as concerned about global supremacy as much as I care about what we are doing to this planet. Does it really matter if the Gross National Product (GNP) of other countries is higher than ours? A majority of what they produce goes to the USA for consumption anyway. I understand the idea that if we don’t stay ahead, they will have a better standard of living than us. But, I am not so sure that this is as important as the air we breathe. What is of greater concern is making sure we can leave a planet behind that our kids and grandkids don’t have to clean up just because we were in a race with China over GNP. Enough of the ranting. I need to go shovel my driveway again.
Is the current Obama administration’s approach to eliminating greenhouse gases (GHG) balanced? It seems the in vogue thing to do is build a wind farm, set-up solar PV panels and put more and more money toward clean energy. I agree that all these measures have a tremendously positive impact on our environment. However, it appears the lost child in this whole green initiative is improvements on how existing buildings actually consume energy.
The amount of private commercial real estate that exists is in the billions. According to the Energy Information Administration’s latest report, there are over 4.8 million commercial buildings in the United States covering over 71.6 billion square feet. These buildings consume over $82 billion in electricity and spew out GHG. The cost of improving these buildings’ energy efficiency would be a fraction of the cost to build a wind farm or install an array of solar panels. Marc Gunther of Reuters recently covered Silicon Valley venture capitalist Sunil Paul’s “Gigaton Throwdown” report that details how top clean energy technologies can have a significant impact by 2020. Gunther writes, “building efficiency is a much, much cheaper way to reduce greenhouse gas emission than solar thermal power or nuclear” noting that it’s the least expensive option.
It’s plain and simple: today’s buildings don’t run efficiently and it’s the worst kept secret in America. There are many buildings that are either too cold or too hot and are wasting energy by allowing those kilowatts to literally escape out the window. I have been involved in commissioning millions of square feet of all types of buildings and can tell you that finding savings is easy and relatively inexpensive.
So why aren’t more building owners doing it? Reasons abound – building operators are too busy keeping their buildings from falling apart and dealing with tenant complaints. In addition, tenants are often kept in the dark with building costs and problem areas, but still have to foot the bill because of how leases are structured. This waste is quickly written off as the “cost of doing business” and not investigated further.
What incentives will encourage building owners and tenants to look at actively decreasing energy consumption as a bottom-line saver? The highest expense our businesses face today (other than payroll, benefits and rent) is energy. Improving energy consumption by just 10% will undoubtedly increase profits and save jobs by improving the bottom-line.
ROI should be proof enough to support energy efficiency of buildings. An upcoming study by ACEEE found that for every kilowatt-hour saved by installing solar panels we spend 20¢ or more. But for every kilowatt-hour saved by improving an existing building’s systems we only spend 3.5¢. Why does the current administration not see this and invest more toward building efficiency instead of focusing so heavily on clean energy? This too creates jobs, saves money and reduces GHG. President Obama recently said changing light bulbs is not that sexy, but he’s doing it. Though I give him credit, more still needs to be done. For now, building owners can follow suit and launch initiatives to capitalize on these low/no cost energy saving measures.