Architecture 2030, a building sector research and advocacy group, issued a report last week asserting that the greening of the U.S. building sector is on track to deliver far more energy savings than government officials predicted only a handful of years ago, with important implications for the country's energy and climate picture.
The report looked at data released without fanfare almost a year ago by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the analysis arm of the Department of Energy, which publishes projections for U.S. energy supply and demand each spring. Architecture 2030 compared EIA's 2005 and 2011 projections and found something that surprised them. The EIA had quietly, but dramatically, lowered long-term projections for energy use and carbon emissions from America's homes, office buildings and other commercial properties.
Energy consumption from buildings will increase by 14 percent from 2005 to 2030, the EIA said, down from the 44 percent spike it predicted seven years ago. Architecture 2030 says it amounts to eliminating the electricity output from 490 500-megawatt coal-fired plants over the same 25-year period.
The new projections mean Americans will save an additional $3.7 trillion on energy bills through 2030.
Greenhouse gas emissions from buildings are slated to increase by less than 5 percent, compared to an estimated 53 percent rise in 2005, the data also revealed. Currently, buildings account for 40 percent of both U.S. electricity consumption and heat-trapping gas emissions.
Edward Mazria, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, which advocates for a carbon- neutral building sector, said his group's analysis of the data is the first to publicize the green building movement's contributions to national energy use so far and into the future. "This is a huge national snapshot of where we've been and where we're heading," he told InsideClimate News.
Mazria says the main driver of the new projections is the hike in building energy standards. "It's policies, it's building codes, it's better building design and more efficient technologies. We're building to a better standard," he said. The group wants the report to provide policymakers and builders a reason to continue on this path.
But EIA says there is more to it than that. Agency analysts told InsideClimate News that Architecture 2030's report downplays factors that have nothing to do with making buildings greener like the huge slowdown in construction from the recession that means fewer buildings have been, and will get, built.
For the most part, though, EIA officials agree with the bottom line of Mazria's report that green improvements are saving energy. "Over the years, our projections for buildings' energy consumption have decreased, and a lot of that is due to increases in efficiency," Erin Boedecker, the lead building analyst at EIA, said.
The Rise of the Green Building
Since 2005, the federal government and most states have adopted various building codes and efficiency tax incentives that have helped spur a green-building boom.
Most notably, a mandate under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act requires all federal buildings to reduce energy use by 30 percent in 2015 compared to 2003 levels. In 2010, California passed the nation's first mandatory statewide green building code, which took effect last year. Meanwhile, more than half of all states have adopted the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code, a standard created by the International Code Council, a U.S.-based nonprofit, which requires buildings to meet efficiency standards for heating units and air conditioners, water heaters and lighting.
As a result of these and other policies, efficiency fixes such as energy-efficient lighting and appliances, insulation, tightly sealed windows and rooftop solar panels, have become common in new and renovated buildings. Green construction jumped from two percent of new non-residential buildings in 2005 to nearly 30 percent in 2010, according to the latest figures from McGraw Hill Construction, a publisher of construction information.
Market forces are also at play. While it can be expensive to make buildings energy efficient, the return on investment, mainly from avoided electricity or heating costs, is nearly 10 percent higher than from conventional buildings, according to McGraw Hill.
Green builders can also receive thousands in rebates and tax incentives from state governments, allowing them to recoup upfront costs even faster. An additional lure: A building with green features generally has higher value, occupancy rates and can fetch higher rents than it would otherwise.
EIA Weighs In on the Report
Even with the undeniable increase in energy-efficient buildings, various factors led EIA to scale back its 2005 projections in the 2011 report, and it's difficult to determine the exact role greener buildings played, said Owen Comstock, an EIA research analyst.
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The Architecture 2030 report "is not looking at the macroeconomic picture," he said.
The EIA anticipates that the recent economic recession—which lasted from late 2007 to mid-2009, but whose effects are still being felt—will lead to a long-term slowdown in the construction sector, reducing the amount of "floor space" that gets built each year for several years.
The electricity that powers U.S. buildings will also get cleaner over the years, as more renewable energy and natural gas-burning plants replace fossil fuel-powered facilities, helping to shrink the sector's carbon footprint. Further, more Americans are expected to migrate from colder northern states to the milder U.S. South and West, reducing the amount of energy used to heat homes, the EIA said.
Worsening climate change will also play a role.
In past reports, EIA's weather projections predicted cooler temperatures, Comstock said. In the 2005 report, analysts determined future weather by using average temperatures over the last 30 years. The 2011 report, however, uses the average of the last 10 years to better reflect the warming trend that climate scientists are observing today. Although air conditioning use is expected to rise as a result of higher temperatures, Comstock said that won't offset energy reductions from heating systems.
In an interview, Mazria acknowledged that the EIA projections are based on an amalgam of factors—"everything across the board," he said—including state policies targeting greenhouse gas reductions and renewable portfolio standards that require utilities to source a certain percentage of power from cleaner sources. In its report, Architecture 2030 does point out that the revised projections are partially due to the fact that fewer buildings will get built.
But that doesn't negate the fact that the green-building surge is producing stunning results, said Vincent Martinez, director of research for Architecture 2030. "It's not just that were building less buildings. We're actually making all the buildings more efficient," he told InsideClimate News.
For instance, in its 2005 report, EIA said that a one percent rise in floor space would create a roughly one percent rise in CO2 emissions. That's no longer true, Martinez explained. According to the 2011 report, it now takes an eight percent increase in floor space to create a one percent uptick in emissions.
Figures Inspire Industry, More Work Ahead
Skip Laitner, an economist at the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy (ACEEE), a Washington-based nonprofit, said he analyzed EIA's data extensively for a Jan. 12 report he co-authored and believes that Architecture 2030's overall claim that green buildings will produce national efficiency gains has a sturdy foundation.
"We're beginning to see evidence of that," he told InsideClimate News.
For many in the green building industry the EIA data is inspiring.
Chris Pyke, vice president of research at the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, which developed the LEED green-building rating system, said the new figures likely will intensify the push for more low-impact buildings. "It makes us even more excited to go out and redouble our efforts to get real data ... and show that we're making the turn" toward a greener building sector, he said.
Kirk Teske, chief sustainability officer at HKS Architects in Dallas, a 1,000-employee global firm that has signed on to Architecture 2030's carbon-neutral challenge, agreed that the data should wake up the building industry. "It's very encouraging and motivating to see progress being made. Now we just need to maintain that level of reduction going forward."
Still, Architecture 2030's goal to make all buildings carbon neutral in less than two decades remains a long shot.
The cost of green retrofits and renewable energy systems like rooftop solar panels are still costly, for starters. But most efficiency advocates agree there's a bigger obstacle of perception they have to surmount. Americans aren't used to thinking of buildings as a vast drain on the energy supply, and thus don't see the major impact that efficiency could have in meeting the nation's energy and climate challenges.
Laitner of ACEEE cited figures from a 2009 publication by economists Robert Ayer and Benjamin Warr, which found that nearly 90 percent of the energy Americans consume is wasted due to inefficiencies. A standard 100-watt light bulb, for instance, might only convert eight percent of the electricity it uses to create light, while the rest is used to give off unnecessary heat, he said.
Many of the country's leaders are operating under the false assumption that we must boost energy supplies to grow the economy, Laitner said, and fail to consider how using less energy would have a similar result. Energy efficiency "is an invisible resource. It doesn't come to mind when we think about what we have to do to power our economy," he said.
Pyke of the U.S. Green Building Council agreed. "Changes to the built environment can and must bring down overall energy demand in the U.S.," he said.