Buildings Energy Efficiency: A Necessary Consideration at Copenhagen

Over the opening days of the Copenhagen Climate Negotiations, which began this Monday, each country has been asked to consider how it can contribute to the 25-40% carbon emission reductions climate scientists believe to be necessary to keep climate change below the 2C mark.  Key issues at stake for the 170 nations represented include commitments to national and international carbon reduction emissions, financing of clean technologies and carbon emission reductions, and technology transfer to non-industrialized nations.   Leading up to the Copenhagen climate summit, deforestation has been primary focus of discussion as deforestation accounts for one-fifth of global carbon emissions and halting deforestation involves large financial investment, but no fundamental consumer behavior changes.  And with a Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) agreement, developed nations would pay developing countries to not cut down their rainforests by treating the standing forest as a valuable commodity.  Such an agreement, if properly financed and implemented, will be necessary to meet global carbon emissions goals and avoid the numerous ecosystem and climate hazards associated with deforestation.

However, in order to meet national greenhouse gas abatement goals and make the economic and structural changes necessary to avoid or mitigate large-scale climate change consequences, industrialized countries must reduce both their total energy consumption and energy intensity.

Consuming 40% of all energy in the US and Europe and 30-40% worldwide, the building sector is one of the least energy efficient sectors and one in which efficiency investment has been generally highly fragmented, relying n the US on individual owners to finance energy efficiency new construction and retrofits.  Yet for many countries, especially the US and the European nations, cutting buildings sector consumption is not only essential to meeting these goals, but is also one of the most cost effective energy saving measures available (see the table from McKinsey, below). Furthermore, analysis by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) indicates that market-driven reform can reduce building energy use by 60% by 2050, but will require a concerted and immediate effort on the part of industry, government, code and standard making bodies, and labor in order to achieve.

Graph demonstrating the cost effectiveness of buildings energy efficiency (McKinsey)

Looking at energy use in the residential sector as a case study, according to the 2005 Residential Energy Consumption Survey 59% of houses in the US were built before 1980 and in the vast majority of cases have not been substantively renovated or retrofitted. These hugely inefficient houses feature little or no insulation in the attics, walls, and foundations, inefficient HVAC systems, leaky ducts, poor air sealing, outdated windows and doors, and are often expensive to operate due to high energy waste rates, especially during peak heating and cooling periods.

US households spend on average just over $1800 annually on house energy consumption, with over 40% of that energy consumed in maintaining thermal comfort through space heating and air conditioning. However, energy consumption reductions of up to 50% have been proved cost effective in both the retrofit and new housing market by focusing on insulating and air sealing to reduce heating and cooling costs.  In the retrofit market, the efficacy of energy efficiency retrofits in decreasing annual operating costs of a building through energy savings is supported by analysis of the DOE Weatherization Assistance Program.  Independent reports conclude that for every $1 spent to weatherize a house (up to $5000 under the current program), the occupants save $1.67 in utility costs, a savings achieved through measures such as adding insulation, air sealing, installing airtight doors and windows, and occasionally upgrading HVAC equipment and ducts.

In the new homes market, Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the country have succeeded in building affordable housing units that are up to 50% more energy efficient to operate (achieving HERS scores in the low to mid-50s), feature materials with low embodied energy, and are cost-effective, saving the families hundreds of dollars per year in operating costs. (To see case studies on high performance Habitat building, see upcoming FAS report titled “Habitat for Humanity High Performance Building Guide”.)

The US Federal Government has begun to address the need for improved energy efficiency in the building sector through legislation in areas such as:  investments in weatherization (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), commercial and residential energy efficiency tax credits (among others, the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008), federally backed energy efficient mortgages, and setting energy use goals and standards for federal buildings (the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and Executive Order 13423 of 2009).  However, all current US energy legislation will save only a fraction of President Obama’s recently announced target of 17% energy savings by 2020.  My comparison, the European Commission has just tentatively approved an “Energy Performance of Buildings Directive,” which mandates that all new construction be “near zero energy”; this directive is estimated to have the potential to reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 70% of their energy savings target of 20% by 2020.

In order to fulfill any promises that are made at Copenhagen over the coming days and weeks, the US will need to set an ambitious buildings energy efficiency target akin to that approved by the European Commission.  This target must be supported by both public and private action and investment, including:  government legislation, incentives, and workforce training; private sector financial investment and the development of a strong, competitive, energy efficiency market; technological innovation both from industry and the national labs; and the rapid development and deployment of high performing building energy codes and standards.

0 thoughts on “Buildings Energy Efficiency: A Necessary Consideration at Copenhagen

  1. You save $1.67 for every $1 invested into weatherization. That represents an immediate 60% return on the dollar. That’s better than any other investment that I am aware of.

  2. My home in California was built in 1964 and yes no insulation. I ended up adding insulation to the home, and saved almost all of that money on my first years heating bill and company even gave me refund.

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