Editorial: Looking Back to Get Ahead
July 27, 2009
A number of novel ideas are helping to enable the creation of zero-net energy buildings. Using cutting-edge energy efficiency technologies and on-site renewable energy generation, such buildings are designed to generate as much energy as they use. It will be a long while before zero-net construction becomes the norm, but there are still many ways to make new buildings more energy efficient, and there are many programs popping up to encourage such efforts. The LEED certification program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council is a prime example. The EPA has also promoted the notion by establishing an Energy Star rating for new homes. The agency recently reported that nearly 17 percent of all single-family homes built in the U.S. in 2008 earned the Energy Star label, up from 12 percent in 2007.
But while growing interest in building highly efficient structures is encouraging, even if it were mandatory, it would still only represent an incremental achievement because new construction represents such a small portion of the built environment. The greatest potential for energy conservation efforts lies in improving the efficiency of the homes and buildings already standing. This point was made eloquently by Gordon Holness, president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in his address at the association’s annual conference recently held in Louisville.
Titled “Sustaining our Future by Rebuilding our Past,” the talk emphasized that improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings presents the greatest opportunity for a sustainable future. Holness noted that residential and commercial buildings consume more than 40 percent of the U.S. primary energy supply, representing more than 72 percent of all electrical power generation and 55 percent of all natural gas consumption. He observed that 75 percent to 85 percent of buildings that will exist in urban areas in 2030 already exist. “If every single new building from this day forward was designed as net-zero, we would still only impact 15 percent of the marketplace by the year 2030,” Holness said.
Government certainly has a role in encouraging such rebuilding and retrofitting through financial incentives such as tax credits and rebate programs. New technology can also have a huge impact. Wireless energy system controls, occupancy sensors, and new methods for implementing HVAC zoning into existing structures all serve to make efficiency retrofitting more practical and affordable by reducing the need to rip up walls. There are many such innovations in the field and in the works, but many more are needed.
New thinking also needs to be applied to legal and economic relationships among owners and occupants. The realm of older houses and small commercial structures is burdened with the rent/lease dilemma where the renters pay the energy costs, but have no incentive to upgrade a structure they don’t own, and the owners have no incentive either, since they don’t pay the bills. This is a huge issue that must be addressed.
Much, too, can be gained from education, making the general public more aware of the various ways they can upgrade and the economic benefits derived from doing so. Industry associations have already done a tremendous job of initiating such campaigns, and consumer media have joined the effort, as well. Unfortunately, such endeavors occasionally require remedial education, as there are far too many people in our society lacking the basic arithmetic skills to understand a payback calculation. Fresh solutions are needed for that problem, also.
In spite of that, much progress has been achieved. But greater progress is required at greater speed. While building new things ignites a keener passion than fixing up old things, the latter holds greater and faster returns than the former when it comes to conserving energy. The more ideas we can throw at it, the better.
Richard Babyak, Editor E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org