At the seventh annual Citizens’ Climate Lobby Conference in Washington DC earlier this summer, EESI’s Sustainable Buildings Policy Director Ellen Vaughan offered a hopeful scenario amid valid concerns that the political will to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is weak, at best. As a speaker on the “Energy: Innovations & Transformations for a Livable Climate” panel, Vaughan discussed the importance of transforming the building sector to combat climate change, noting that the potential for energy savings in buildings has barely been tapped even though the knowledge and technologies to do it are available now.

More than 1,000 climate volunteers were at the June 19-20 conference to brush up their knowledge of climate science and learn about the latest developments in sustainable energy and development. About 800 citizen lobbyists later converged on Capitol Hill to advocate for the passage of a carbon-fee-and-dividend bill; they succeeded in visiting most of the 535 offices, including those of climate change skeptics.

At the energy session, Vaughan provided volunteers with information about the energy use of buildings in the United States (nearly 40 percent of the total) and its impact on climate change, but she also emphasized the multiple benefits of sustainable buildings for the economy and society, as well as for the environment. She discussed proven strategies that can and should be implemented now to improve building energy performance, and she noted the role of government in supporting and growing a profitable, competitive green building industry.

How do we get there?

First of all, there is no single “green” technology or feature. Rather, successful sustainability lies in the integration of high quality, low-energy design strategies, materials, products/equipment, and plumbing/electrical/mechanical systems. Exceptionally energy-efficient buildings and houses powered by renewable energy (a.k.a. sustainable buildings) offer a major solution for climate change mitigation. Integrating other high-performance features such as energy storage, bio-based materials, water efficiency, and accessible design for seniors and disabled persons, goes even further to address climate change adaptation; these are sustainable and resilient buildings.

High performance building codes could address all of these crucial issues and help protect buildings, people, and property from catastrophes such as extreme weather events. These buildings are achievable NOW, but too many obstacles are slowing their spread. Workforce training, standards development, consumer education, financing, and policy incentives are all needed to drive this market and make sustainable buildings the norm.

On the Citizens’ Climate Lobby conference panel, Vaughan noted that transparent, consistent standards embodied in high-performance building codes that are widely adopted and implemented are an essential step on the “path to zero.” Such standards would make it possible for the building sector to do its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly and, ideally, help keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. But, this will not be possible without a total transformation of the building industry from “building as energy consumer” to “building as energy saver” and even “building as energy producer” (with individual buildings acting like mini power plants).

U.S. buildings consume more than 70 percent of the nation’s electricity and 40 percent of energy overall. The sector’s use of electricity generated from coal and natural gas; its on-site combustion of oil and gas for heating and cooking; and its use of refrigerants for A/C and food storage are responsible for about 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Tragically, much of this energy (and money) is wasted due to outdated construction techniques and appliances, deferred maintenance, and less-than-stellar operational practices. Building operation (lighting, heating, cooling, running appliances and electronics) accounts for the lion’s share of building sector emissions of carbon and other pollutants and is one of the largest monthly expenses for home owners and businesses, after mortgage or rental payments.

A dedicated effort to making new and existing buildings more efficient would pay enormous dividends while making a real difference toward climate change mitigation and adaptation. This will require intentional policy development and implementation; thoughtful planning and design decisions; attention to building operation and maintenance; and new priorities for real estate investors. It is a big task but essential to stabilizing the climate and creating sustainable and resilient societies.

But we should not feel hopeless. The really good news is that the Path to Zero is well defined and nearly fully paved (with pervious materials for stormwater management, naturally)! Clever people already are creating uber-efficient buildings that require much less energy to operate. So-called "passive building" methods and materials are dramatically reducing building energy loads with airtight envelopes and insulation on all six sides, while ensuring good indoor air quality with energy-recovery ventilation systems.

Good passive building design can achieve the lowest possible rating, next to Zero, on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index. A rating of Zero means a building generates as much energy as it uses—a net-zero energy building, in effect. This is achieved by integrating solar panels and other renewable generation technologies into an energy-efficient structure, whether it be a new building or a retrofit. A rating lower than Zero—literally off the scale—means the building produces more energy than it uses and either sends that excess energy back to the utility grid (for a price, depending on a state’s utility policy) or has the capacity to store it on site, for example in batteries. High capacity, affordable energy-storage technology is the next frontier toward sustainable and resilient energy systems, communities, and societies.

These best practices in sustainable building design, construction and operation, combined with energy-efficient materials, renewable energy and storage technologies, are HERE NOW and slowly but surely revolutionizing the construction industry and the energy sector.


Authors: Daniel Lopez, Ellen Vaughan