February 19, 2009

Time to get serious about conserving energy

  • Making buildings more energy-efficient is the cheapest, cleanest and quickest way to reduce our climate impact. Existing measures are a good start, but we need to do more.


    Buildings are far and away the region’s greatest energy wasters, responsible for more than 30 percent of Washington’s carbon dioxide emissions. And most new buildings, unfortunately, still aren’t designed to optimize energy performance.

    These facts provide a great opportunity for dramatically reducing fossil-fuel consumption while helping revitalize our struggling economy. Making buildings more energy-efficient is the cheapest, cleanest and quickest way to help reduce human impact on the environment and create new green jobs.

    Conservation starts with our individual actions and choices. Whether it means simply remembering to turn off the lights when we leave a room or adding attic or crawl-space insulation, our collective small actions add up to positive change.

    More action needed

    Our utilities, responding to future growth projections and capacity-strained infrastructures, administer rebate programs to help encourage customer investment in building-energy efficiency. Federal tax credits and other programs also are available to reduce the cost of constructing a more energy-efficient building. Energy codes that prescribe efficiency levels in new building designs are also being used across much of our nation.

    Green building certification programs like LEED and Built Green have prerequisites and credits to reduce our carbon footprint through more energy-efficient designs. Seattle and Washington state both now mandate LEED silver or above in their building projects.

    And private building owners are certifying new and existing buildings and investing in more energy-efficient technologies because it will lower operating costs, attract tenants, improve retention and bolster market values.

    These are all steps in the right direction, but to create the sea change many scientists now consider imperative requires broad, aggressive action. Considering that the majority of our existing buildings will still be around using energy in 50 years, it is clear that more action to accelerate efficiency gains is needed.

    Green building capital

    During his annual State of the City address last February, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced the goal to make Seattle America’s green building capital.

    The initiative including improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings 20 percent by 2020, and achieving carbon neutrality in new buildings and major retrofits by 2030. The mayor convened a 52-member Green Building Task Force in July to provide guidance on policy the city can employ to achieve these goals.

    Task force members have helped the city think through options by reviewing packages for feasibility, likelihood of success and compatibility/synchronization with other state, regional, national and international efforts. Recommendations have been prepared for the mayor that cover short-, medium- and long-term milestones.

    Greenhouse gas emission reduction goals in King County can help lead to increased energy efficiency in new buildings in the coming years. In particular, a greenhouse gas emission assessment has been added to the environmental review of building projects under the State Environmental Policy Act.

    New state bill

    In Washington state, a wide-ranging proposal is under consideration in the Legislature. Based in part on two years of work by the governor’s Climate Action Team, the proposal, called Efficiency First, aims to cut carbon emissions in existing buildings in half and move us toward a new generation of super-efficient buildings that produce much of their own power.

    The proposal would:

    • gradually strengthen state building codes and offer incentives to achieve super-efficient, low-energy-use buildings;

    • provide tax credits for buildings that operate at high energy-efficiency levels;

    • offer financing options for energy-efficiency or green-building projects; and

    • require owners or managers to annually evaluate their buildings’ energy-use performance and make the results available to potential buyers, lessees or lenders.

    In addition, the proposal would enhance home weatherization services to reduce energy bills in low-income households and ensure adequate funding for low-income bill-paying assistance.

    Encouraging innovation

    Policies and legislation can mandate change today and provide clear direction to achieve desired results. They also encourage needed innovation in building technology and more sophisticated design and construction techniques.

    On the leading edge, building experts in our region are already working to create buildings that use no more energy than they can generate on-site with renewable power.

    Tools like the Living Building Challenge, developed by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, set this lofty goal as a prerequisite. Others are helping to define guidelines and standards that, if adopted, can help shift the mainstream construction industry toward ever more efficient buildings.

    One example is ASHRAE’s standard 189.1P. This standard, planned for initial publication in 2010, provides code language for the design of high-performance green buildings. State-of-the-industry measures prescribed in standard 189 will result in buildings that significantly exceed current Washington energy codes.

    Reaching forward to a more sustainable future is a clear imperative for our society. Let’s continue to be leaders here in our region by making building efficiency first.

    Tom Marseille is a principal at Stantec and sits on the board of the Cascadia Green Building Council.

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