Energy efficient buildings getting too big to fail

On January 30, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced their agreement with the colossus of the secondary mortgage market, Freddie Mac, to promote energy efficiency in American housing. How much will smarter buildings cut carbon emissions?

Annual energy consumption by all types of buildings produces about 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases and accounts for 65 percent of U.S. electricity consumption. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that most energy used within the average residential building primarily heats rooms and secondarily runs appliances and other plugged in devices. Air-conditioning consumes surprisingly little energy, even relative to heating water. Making any one of those end uses more efficient would make substantial gains towards mitigating climate change.

household energy use Energy efficient buildings getting too big to fail

The agreement between Freddie Mac and the EPA targets multi-family buildings that make up about a quarter – 28.1 million in 2009 – of all residential buildings. Energy and water use data will be requested from loan applicants and those data will then be used to encourage investors to buy into energy efficient developments for the cost savings. The EPA will serve in an advisory role, giving guidance on data management and the application of their Energy Star tracking system. If the agreement is successful at swaying the market in the long-term, the EPA estimates that a 30 percent increase in building efficiency would save $9 billion on energy bills and cut 35 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year. Not great news for utility companies, but encouraging for developers and everyone else under the carbon cloud.

Offering better financial options to investors of future construction projects may help, but retrofitting the millions of existing buildings could add up to greater savings. One supersized success story is the Empire State Building. Just two years after retrofitting windows, insulating radiators, and upgrading the building management controls, their electric bill dropped by $4.4 million from 2007 baseline costs for a similar occupancy rate. Those savings helped recover the retrofit costs, and will also cut 105,000 metric tons of carbon emissions over 15 years.

One possible setback to the green building movement is that the benefits from tweaks in the efficiency of individual buildings could be lost from commensurate emissions increases in other sectors. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation continue to grow at a steady clip. New construction and urban sprawl may be one reason the number of vehicle miles driven by passenger cars and light-trucks ramped up 34 percent from 1990 to 2011. More emphasis on smart city planning to shorten commute distances may do just as much to cut emissions, and help drivers keep their cool. Miles Becker | 3 February 2014

 

Photo © John Stamets for Bullitt Center

Figure Data © Residential Energy Consumption Survey

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