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Momentum Toward Building Energy Efficiency Transcends Harsh Political Climate

David B. Goldstein

The momentum toward energy efficient buildings is transcending the harsh political climate in Washington, occurring primarily at the state and city levels in the United States, at the level of nonprofit organizations, and in other countries that are the fastest-growing source of climate pollution.

Locally initiated policies for improved building efficiency have always driven the bulk of activity at the national level, both in the United States and in countries such as Russia. With the ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which calls for the world to pursue action to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees, we see that one of the most important ways to stabilize climate is by fixing existing buildings—both their structure and their operations, and many of the activities in 2017 set up the infrastructure for doing just that.

As would be expected in a year of reduced (but still important) national-scale governmental activities, the progress has been in a variety of areas—both in terms of geography and subject matter. Many states have adopted updated building energy codes to allow the builder greater flexibility in choosing which energy efficiency measures to install in return for meeting a more demanding target for savings. California is on the verge of adopting a residential energy code that requires near-zero electricity use. Cities are adopting policies for existing buildings that start with requiring transparency about energy use and often continue by creating requirements for retrofit energy savings based on energy audits.

Increase in Participation in Rating, Labeling Systems

More buildings are being rated and labeled, either with HERS ratings in the case of houses or Energy Star ratings that look at overall energy use for commercial buildings. Over 2 million U.S. homes have been rated on their energy use, with the number of new ratings growing every year. The Consortium for Energy Efficiency is poised to adopt a specification for energy efficiency programs based on HERS scores. These specifications are used by utilities and other efficiency program operators to achieve consistency in efficiency programs throughout North America.

We are seeing steady progress at recognizing the dollar savings in utility bills that result from energy-saving features as part of lending practices for buildings. This reform allows a buyer to qualify for a mortgage on a somewhat-more-expensive efficient home whenever the monthly payments increase less than the savings in utility bills. Thus if a seller spends $10,000 for energy-related repairs, adding about $50 a month in mortgage costs, but the HERS rating shows $75 a month in bill savings, the extra money could be borrowed even if the buyer barely qualifies at their current income.

Energy ratings are moving toward becoming a part of building appraisals and real estate listings. Europe is in the lead on making energy ratings available in the market, but labeling is also prevalent in Australia and elsewhere.

A key milestone for meeting serious climate goals is for buildings to consume almost no energy by 2030. One way to do this is to cut energy use by some 40 percent now, then make further cuts gradually over time. Another approach is to go straight to zero energy—meaning the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis would equal to the amount of renewable energy produced on the site—all at once.

We made substantial progress on the latter goal in the United States in 2017 (and in other places as well). We now have a database of nearly 500 zero-energy buildings that are already operating in North America, up from about two-thirds that number at the beginning of the year, and up 700 percent since 2012. Many of them have had their zero-energy claims validated on the meter.

Strong Upside to Zero-Energy Buildings

Because zero-energy buildings produce as much energy over the course of a year as they consume, they have essentially zero climate-warming emissions. Better yet, they tend to not cost any more than conventional buildings. While the solar panels add to the costs of a conventional building, whole-building integrated design results in efficiency measures that significantly reduce construction costs.

In the absence of White House-level support for either limiting climate change or for energy efficiency, other countries and institutions are taking the lead on improving the efficiency of buildings, in many cases with a greater level of involvement and ambition than we have seen in the past. This deeper commitment is important because a goal of limiting the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees is much more demanding than the previous 2-degree goal, which in itself is more ambitious than what current policies will deliver. (The Natural Resources Defense Council has a detailed pathway to meet the 2-degree goal, and a derivative pathway to meet the more ambitious goal.)

In India we see the first two in what will be a continuing series of bulk procurements of state-of-the-art efficient lighting and efficient air conditioners. These are key to setting up the manufacturing and distribution infrastructure to provide continually improving levels of energy efficiency at scale. Such innovations could spread worldwide.

We all need to redouble our efforts at reducing energy use in buildings through efficiency (and also by adding solar energy to run them), remembering that we are not only saving the planet, but also creating sustainable job growth and more equitable prosperity. There are good models available for how to do this. Readers should encourage their local and state governments and volunteer organizations to participate.

David B. Goldstein has worked on energy efficiency and energy policy since the early 1970s. He currently codirects the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Energy program. Goldstein has been instrumental in the development of energy efficiency standards for new buildings and appliances that are currently in effect at the regional and national levels in the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan, and China. He was a founding director of the Institute for Market Transformation, the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, and the New Buildings Institute. Goldstein received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the recipient of its Leo Szilard Award for Physics in the Public Interest. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002 and is the recipient of the California Alumni Association’s 2003 Award for Excellence in Achievement. The author of the books Saving Energy, Growing Jobs and Invisible Energy, Goldstein is based in San Francisco.