McKinsey & Co: Energy Efficiency is Like Free Money

We're leaving money on the table by not improving energy efficiency (image by pfala, CC 2.5 licensed)

Would you spend $520 to save $1,200? That’s the choice McKinsey & Co is offering to the U.S. about energy efficiency. In their new report on energy efficiency, released last week, McKinsey shows how the U.S. can reduce its non-transportation energy use by 23%, eliminate the emissions of 1.1 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually, and save $1,200 billion, for a cost of about $520 billion.

They do recognize that achieving these results requires some new thinking on our parts:

Such energy savings will be possible, however, only if the United States can overcome significant sets of barriers. These barriers are widespread and persistent, and will require an integrated set of solutions to overcome them – including information and education, incentives and financing, codes and standards, and deployment resources well beyond current levels.

The report not only provides the conclusions, but also the steps we can take to address barriers and achieve the desired results. They suggest an overarching strategy, including the key point that “energy efficiency is an important energy resource to help meet future energy needs…” and the need for an integrated portfolio of different approaches to unlock the full potential of energy efficiency.


Climate Change and Sustainability Thoughts From Around The Web

A mythical character (image by Eddi 07, CC 2.0 licensed)

A handful of good articles from the past few weeks, on climate change and sustainable building.

I hope you find these as interesting as I did – let me know in the comments.

Finally, New Green Standards to Update Local Building Codes

Commercial Buildings Need To Be Green, Too
Commercial Buildings Need To Be Green, Too

The National Real Estate Investor recently gave a rundown of the existing and new green building standards that local governments are starting to mandate. Of course, LEED led the list, along with the new ANSI National Green Building Standard, GBI 01-200XP from the Green Building Institute, expected this summer, and “Standard 189” a commercial building green standard under development by a consortium including ASHRAE and the USGBC (creator of the LEED standards).

Driving all of the new guidelines is the desire to assist property owners and managers in meeting a groundswell of statutes and ordinances regulating energy consumption. At the same time, the standards will help local and state governments tap a common set of benchmarks to measure compliance with the construction and renovation goals that they adopt.

The article goes on to describe some of the differences between these standards, pointing out for example that while the LEED standard has been called out in many municipalities as the mandate for green building, its original goal was to recognize the top 25% of buildings, not serve as a minimum target.

On the other hand, the National Green Building Standard is designed from the outset to be minimally prescriptive, and to conform to local building codes. Paula Cino, director of energy and environmental policy at the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), one of the organizations that collaborated to create the NGBS, says:

The standard is written in mandatory language that’s easily verifiable. You don’t need that LEED Accredited Professional or consultant looking over your shoulder, telling you what you need to do. At the first level, the standard is designed to be achievable by 100% of the buildings out there, and was designed so that we were not requiring technologies that are untested or not commercially available. We made sure … there wouldn’t be issues with product availability, technical feasibility or things like that.

Along with all these standards comes the question of how to get builders to meet them – should they be mandated or incentivized?
Some proponents of sustainable design argue that tax breaks, assistance grants and other incentives are more effective than mandates for achieving meaningful reductions in energy consumption and deterring harmful effects on the environment. Standards tend to encourage minimal compliance, while rewards spur property owners to seek higher degrees of performance.
The battle amongst the standards is going to be interesting. The article doesn’t even mention the Green Point Rating system from Build It Green or the Passive House standard. Of course, those are both more traditionally focused on single family residential buildings than the larger commercial buildings that primarily concern the National Real Estate Investor. It does seem, though, that this proliferation of standards, while exciting, will eventually have to result in a shakeout, leaving one or two “winners” that everyone can learn and build to.

A Passive House White House

What if the White House were a Passive House?
What if the White House were a Passive House?

David White, an architectural energy technical consultant at Transsolar, sent a letter to President Obama recommending the Passive House as a new energy efficiency standard:

I’d like to draw your attention to one approach to energy efficient building, which is called Passive House … the most stringent residential energy efficiency standard in the world.

White goes on to describe the Passive House approach in more detail, and ends with this call for a subsidy and/or mandate.

In considering how federal policy … one problem [with current mandates based on LEED, for example] is lack of assurance that the subsidies bring about real and cost-effective savings. Passive House certification offers a way through this: it ensures energy efficiency. … A subsidy of Passive House, or a US standard with the same level of quality assurance, would help defray added costs for early adoption and get a new industry on its feet.

This was recently reported on Danielle Sack’s Fast Company blog. Danielle went even further, suggesting that President Obama renovate the White House itself to Passive House standards!

I also found a link to a presentation David made at a conference covering some energy efficiency and solar power renovations he’s been involved with. The presentation also mentions the Passive House standard and shows some of the specific architectural details and mechanical systems used.

Disagreeing With The New Yorker On Stimulus Vs. Sustainability

Eustace Tilley Considers Electric Cars
Eustace Tilley Considers Electric Cars

I’m a big fan of the New Yorker, and read most issues cover to cover. Their politics usually align with mine, and I always enjoyed Hendrik Hertzberg sticking it to the Cheney administration. But I have to take issue with some of their economic opinions. In particular, David Owen’s Talk of Town, Economy Vs. Environment, in the March 20 issue got me hot and bothered.

Owen’s basic position seems to be that to be sustainable we can’t spend, and if we spend we’re not sustainable. Therefore, the stimulus package and a long term goal for sustainability are incompatible. (With the subtext, apparently, that stimulus is more important.)

I have several issues with Owen’s position. For example, Owens doesn’t say much about spending on sustainability – there $15 billion of that. Much of that, because it’s focused on energy efficiency, will result in improved productivity. It turns out you can get a lot of productivity from sustainability improvements. It’s one of the magic tricks – called the “triple bottom line” – you spend less or the same up front, you save more, and you’re healthier and more productive. In this case sustainability is actually directly improving the economy. Continue reading “Disagreeing With The New Yorker On Stimulus Vs. Sustainability”

Individual Action Is Not Enough

Someone entered this topic in an online forum to which I subscribe:

The main problem with lowering the carbon level is down to individuals, to behaviour, to good citizenship and that is the biggest challenge of all… how many times to you see careless behaviours? how do you change that?

I just had to respond. I think this attitude is the best way to make sure that end in the end, nothing good happens. I’m reprinting my comment on the topic below, unedited (even though you all know about passive houses already).

My response

Individual action will not solve the problem. For example, my hobby horse is highly energy efficient buildings such as the Passive House approach. They use 80-90% less energy than a conventional house, at typically 5-10% higher cost to build. Simply building only passive houses and remodeling to the passive house standard for the next ten years would reduce the U.S.’s carbon footprint by at least 20%. In fact, because the energy use is so low, there will be lots of excess solar electricity generated, so our carbon footprint might even go lower due to the compounding effects.

But people won’t build them without a) a large-scale education campaign for both builders and home buyers, b) incentives for builders and owners from cities, counties, and states, and c) a compelling business case for the suppliers of the highly efficient windows and mechanical systems required.

Passive Houses “tunnel through” the efficiency cost barrier to achieve their benefits at a relatively low additional cost. But even though they have a great cost/benefit ratio, they’re not going to take off without those structural changes. That’s why, instead of becoming a builder of passive houses, I’m becoming a lobbyist for passive houses. Builders can make a difference of 2-5 houses a year. As a lobbyist, I can make a difference of 100-1000 houses a year, or more.

Individuals weatherstripping their houses, and taking shorter showers, can slow down CO2 growth a bit, but turning it around takes large structural changes. Yes, those are driven by individuals, but they are not individual changes.

I use passive houses as an example, but there are lots more in other areas. Same is true for car use – it will take structural changes for people to be able to live nearer where they work. Or for food energy use – most people are not going to be able to garden enough to make a difference in the U.S.’s agricultural energy footprint – that’s going to take big changes in commercial ag. Some of those changes are happening, and that’s awesome, but it’s not going to happen by you putting in a garden, no matter how good and useful a step that is.

Green Building Incentives – Arlington County’s Approach

Court House Plaza
Arlington's Courthouse Square (image by Helgas Lobster Stew, CC 2.0 licensed)

I posted last week about my project, along with some other Menlo Park residents, to get some [intlink id=”606″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]incentives for energy efficient buildings[/intlink] into the Menlo Park building code. I put out a tweet on Twitter the other day to see if any of my “tweeps” had suggestions for me. Chris Cheatham, of the Green Building Law Update blog, turned me on to the Arlington County (Virginia) incentives.

The Arlington criteria are based on LEED certification levels, which mean they’re not as focused on energy efficiency as I’d like. On the other hand, the nature of the incentives themselves are very interesting. Arlington County is rewarding builders who achieve LEED Silver rating or higher with FAR (floor area ratios) “bonuses” of .15 to .35. This represents an additional 1,500 square feet of building on a 10,000 square foot lot.

Chris’s most recent blog post is focused on an interview with Joan Kelsch, an environmental planner for Arlington County, about the next update of the county’s incentives. When asked “Why LEED as the criteria for the incentives?” Kelsch responded:

LEED is the most widely accepted and understood green building rating system.  Until building codes call for more energy efficient and water efficient buildings, I think LEED is a good tool to guide more environmentally responsible development.  LEED addresses issues broader than just building code – indoor air quality, materials choices, embedded energy issues, waste management, etc.  I think LEED has played a critical role in helping the market transformation toward greener materials and process and will continue to do so.

I recommend taking a look at Chris’s post for the whole story.

I’m not sure a FAR bonus would work in Menlo Park, but it’s interesting to see what types of incentives municipalities are considering to encourage green building.

How Should Local Planning Commissions Reward Energy Efficiency?

SATOR Magic square
It's code for something! (Image by Marco Fedele, CC 2.0 licensed)

As I discussed in my earlier post, [intlink id=”602″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]Code changes and incentives are critical for energy independence[/intlink], it’s going to be tough to change the energy efficiency of our building stock until building and planning commissions provide incentives to owners and builders to take those extra steps, and spend that extra money.

So the question then arises, what should these building and planning commissions incentivize? “Energy efficiency” is not a sufficient answer, obviously. In particular because building codes are all now claiming to be energy efficient already. E.g., California’s new version of Title 24 is our “Building Energy Efficiency Standard.” Indeed, a house built to the new Title 24 standards will be 20-30% more efficient than a house built to the old Title 24. However, compared to a standard like the Passive House Specification, or the Architecture 2030 interim goals for 2010, it’s significantly missing the opportunity for energy savings of 80-90%.

OK, I’m preaching to the choir on this topic, I know. But the question then arises, what should the building and planning commissions incentivize? Here’s what I’m thinking, as a quick first cut:

  • Passive House Certification
  • 22 points or more on the LEED for Homes Energy and Atmosphere category
  • X points (I don’t know the value for X yet) on the Green Point Rating system

My goal is to come up with several roughly comparable measures of advanced energy efficiency, any of which could be used to achieve the incentives. (Whatever they might end up being – I listed some in the earlier post mentioned above.)

I’m very interested to hear your comments on this list, and your suggestions for other additions.

Introducing New Silicon Valley Passive Homes Website

Silicon Valley From Space
Silicon Valley From Space

Over the weekend I put up what I hope will be an important resource in the goal of achieving 100% zero-net energy homes in California by 2018 – a new website for the Silicon Valley Passive House Coalition.

From the site:

SVPH is helping local municipalities to set challenging but practical goals for maximizing energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction in the local communities of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California.

In particular, many communities are creating “climate action plans” which include incentives for the use of design options that promote energy efficiency and carbon savings. SVPH promotes including an incentive related to the use of extremely energy-efficient design and building approaches such as super insulation, zero-net energy, and the “Passive House” concept.

Please take a quick look and let me know via the comments what you think about the new baby (both the site and the organization)!

Middle Class Task Force Meeting in Philly Focuses on Green Jobs

One of the Middle Class Task Force panels at the Philly meeting
One of the Middle Class Task Force panels at the Philly meeting

If you’re not reading the new blog, you’re missing out.

This liveblog about the “Middle Class Task Force” meeting in Philly last week from was great. Speakers included John Podesta, former Clinton staffer and now with the Center for American Progress; Van Jones from Green for All (based in the Bay Area), Fred Krupp from the Environmental Defense Fund, a bunch of cabinet and administration appointees, and representatives from labor like Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers of America.

Some highlights:

“when I see less carbon, I also see more jobs.” That’s from Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has invested a lot of time and energy into the details of how to make green jobs a reality.

Mark Edlen of Portland, OR-based architecture firm Gerding-Edlen — in a lot of ways created an industry and market for green city living. He believes they can go further — zero impact buildings. Gerding-Edlin just completed a 400-thousand square foot building that is off the sewer grid, and in fact puts water back into the system.

One of the key partners in making green jobs a reality has been Labor, in particular the United Steelworkers of America. USW President Leo Gerard has been a visionary on this issue, and has been building coalitions with enviro groups for years — he’s a founder of the Apollo Alliance and the Blue Green Alliance.

Who knew (not me, anyway) that the United Steelworkers has had such a green past. Check out the PowerPoint Gerard used at the meeting — it’s impressive!

There’s a lot more at, including their new whitepaper.

I’ve really been enjoying the openness of the White House blog – I hope it keeps up. And I hope this task force is a harbinger of a big change in how we build homes and businesses in the U.S. – better services at a much lower energy footprint!