November 2007

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Two Critical Steps Toward Sustainability
(That we need to take now!)


Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

Contributing Editor

There is no question about it; this is a crucial time for the building industry. It is becoming clear that society has moved well out in front of our industry in its desire and expectations for a more sustainable built environment. And it’s also clear that newer technologies becoming available to meet these expectations are beyond our industry’s antiquated processes to effectively support. The result is that as an industry we have fallen considerably behind the wave of change that is now sweeping through society. And the question we need to answer very soon is - How can we catch up?

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It’s increasingly apparent that any reasonable answer to this question involves substantial change that moves us away from the present strategies of ever tighter equipment and configuration standards for new buildings and utility directed programs to develop and promote energy efficiency incentives for existing buildings. These approaches are quite simply not achieving anywhere near the rate of progress in energy performance expected of us. Nor are these strategies helpful in assisting the integration of new and more efficient energy conversion technologies into our industry. To the contrary, it seems that over the last few years these strategies have in large part contributed to the current stagnation both in the technologies being applied and the overall lackluster energy performance of our building stock.  

So, we certainly should be developing a consensus that significant changes in industry practices need to be developed and followed if we are to move our industry to the levels of energy efficiency and building performance that are attainable and now widely expected. But if a “more of the same” approach is no longer viable, what are the most critical changes that need to be made? Here, I’d like to outline two that I believe are critical to our industry’s ability to change its direction and quickly catch up to where we need to be regarding the energy performance of buildings.

CRITICAL STEP 1: Take efficiency improvement programs out of the hands of utilities. Utilities should never have been put in a position of managing energy efficiency programs for the built environment. In addition to the unavoidable conflict of interest of placing energy suppliers in charge of energy reduction programs, utilities have not demonstrated any real ability to develop, direct and implement effective large scale efficiency measures or programs. Nearly all of these programs are bureaucratic nightmares and none have displayed an ability to ensure long term performance. For reasons that are becoming clearer to everyone, utility based energy efficiency programs have failed to even scratch the surface of the potential for the large scale efficiency improvements we need in our building stock.  Vast sums of money have been lost in this failed effort. Now, a change in public policy is imperative as utilities are beginning to realize the public’s disdain for building new power plants at this time and are working in some markets to position themselves to capture a healthy return on the avoided costs (demanding of regulators a return on investments they are not even making!). If our industry is to move forward effectively, we must encourage public policy at state and local levels to shift the authority and responsibility for energy efficiency from utilities so that the avoided costs of unbuilt power plants can be applied to efficiency improvements rather than deliver it to utilities as windfall profit. There are a number of alternative models that have been suggested and applied with marginal success, but these fall considerably short of extracting the full potential from efficiency improvement. It’s time to have a real dialog on how efficiency can best be applied as a near term energy resource. The answer, we’ll find is not difficult, just considerably different by nature and in structure when compared to current efficiency programs.

contemporary CRITICAL STEP 2: Redevelop efficiency standards to become performance based. This critical step involves changing the current course of efficiency standards based on equipment and configurations and moving forward with new standards based on annual energy performance for entire systems and buildings. Establishing minimum equipment standards was effective a decade ago, but this approach is reaching a point of diminishing returns. Furthermore, we’ve certainly found that systems incorporating more efficient equipment do not necessarily operate more efficiently. Standards are beginning to stumble over themselves as designers increasingly cite the rigidity of standards as one of their impediments to creating more efficient building system designs. The resolution is to establish new minimum performance based efficiency standards for entire buildings and systems. This is a far more direct solution to solving the issue of building energy performance.

The potential value of these two critical steps is increased by the synergy between them. If we are successful in redefining the mission of utilities and integrate them successfully into a performance based utility network, then utility rates can be calibrated to increase as buildings consume above their performance standards. Such a system is a natural extension of the EPA’s Energy Star program and the Excess Use rate schedules that are already being applied in some locations.  

So, a much more sustainable building stock is possible, but to do it, we need first to revitalize our industry with these two critical steps!  .


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