ACEEE’s Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings – A Recap

With energy and environmental problems growing more daunting, the need for intelligent solutions is becoming more and more significant. Every two years, a diverse gang of engineers, architects, technicians and true believers gather at the Asilomar Conference Center for the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy’ Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.  I recently returned from the 14th Summer Study, held on Aug. 17-22.

My fondest memories of the Summer Study are from the Reagan years when the dwindling energy efficiency crowd huddled together for mutual therapy, shared exchanges on survivor strategies, and rekindled their commitments to stay the course.  I’ve missed the recent Summer Studies, but returned this year to indulge my own obsession and measure the changes aroused by rising energy prices and publicity about Climate Change.

Somewhat surprised, I experienced a sense of renewal akin to what I had felt during the retreats in the Reagan years.  The Summer Study attracted more than 900 people this year-the largest ever.  A show of hands at the opening session showed that more than half were first-time attendees.  The Registrant List shows an increasing number of international attendees.  I reconnected with veterans of the earlier wars.  And I saw a new beauty in the gnarled, twisted trees along the Pacific coast that still produced bountiful branches of green leaves-imagining a personal metaphor.

To appreciate the level of dedication by the 900 plus, you need to know the program.  There’s a reason it’s called Summer Study.  The mornings are filled with two sets of 12 parallel sessions.  In each session, three or four peer-reviewed papers are presented and defended.  The peer reviewers take their roles very seriously and so do the questioners in the Q and A.  All attendees lament the difficult choices they have to make about which session to attend among the tantalizing options.

After lunch, there are informal sessions.  Attendees seeking to snare other attendees in a discussion of their projects, initiatives and dreams advertise their sessions in The Grapevine, the daily newsletter.  More difficult choices.  The afternoons are completed with poster sessions featuring the latest in policy initiatives, software programs, and hardware advances.  Following dinner, we gathered again for inspiring plenary sessions.  The hearty then stroll to a bonfire on the beach for a beer and an exchange in ideas about the road to a carbon neutral world.

It’s total immersion for five days, interrupted only by a dance the last night featuring “Perry and the Pumpers” where we staid, studious energy geeks did our impersonations of unbundled energy chaos.

My most important observation is that we are in good shape when it comes to having the human resources needed to create an energy-efficient, low carbon built environment.  The resources are found in Federal departments, state energy offices, research laboratories, private companies, universities, non-governmental organizations, international programs, foundations and other dedicated individuals.  Even so, to meet the extremely difficult goals often announced, we need to grow these human resources.

We have a short term and a mid/long term energy R&D challenge.  In the short-term, we need to spend effectively the large increases in funding anticipated for building efficiency programs.  That calls for an immediate focus on setting realistic goals and a rigorous implementation, quality control, transparency, evaluation, and course-correction process.

The mid/long term goal is to commit the major, multi-year funding and scientific talent required to make the advances in improved performance and lower-costs of the new technologies and products needed to meet the quantum improvements necessary to meet the 50 percent and higher greenhouse gas reduction goals.  The new technologies that are making large energy savings today are the product of the research in the 1980s and 1990s.  These budgets have been slashing in the new millennium.

The Asilomar papers showed a welcome revival of behavioral research-research that seeks to understand how and why people make the decisions that affect their energy consumption.  In the post OPEC embargo years of 1973-1974, this was recognized as important.  For example, an evaluation of home energy efficiency programs offered by utilities shows a 10-to-1 difference in the response, depending upon how the programs were presented.  For nearly a quarter century, there was little room for behavior studies in the hard sciences.  Now there’s a growing recognition that research needs to include both U values and you values.

The Asilomar climate also stimulates one’s questioning genes.  Why, for example, did we hear so many accounts about successes?  While some courageous speakers provided candid descriptions of what worked and what didn’t, they were a rarity.  A meticulous description of how a good idea has gone awry can be a most valuable contribution.

I would make an unscientific estimate that some 80 percent of the energy savings during the next five years will need to be made in existing buildings; 20 percent in new buildings.  And I’d make an equally unscientific estimate that 80 percent of the papers addressed energy savings in new buildings; 20 percent in existing buildings.  There’s a disconnect here.  My worry was eased when several others expressed the same concern.

But all told, Asilomar gave evidence that we have one of the key ingredients we need to successfully meet the daunting energy and environmental challenges we face-the human resources.  What’s done in the building sector is central to our success.  The fastest, cheapest and most reliable actions needed to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions are in the building sector.  A committed and growing human resource is available and eager to help meet this challenge.

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