Trends may come and go in the green-building industry, but one issue remains constant: energy. Forged in the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s, the movement to encourage greater energy efficiency has gained new momentum in the current push toward carbon neutrality.
Founded in 1977 by Sens. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) and Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance to Save Energy has lived by its mission to promote energy efficiency through research, policy advocacy, education and public outreach. Eco-structure had a chance to chat with Jeffrey Harris, vice president for programs for the Alliance to Save Energy, about the organization’s purpose, goals and how far the energy-efficiency movement has come in the past few decades.
How has the energy-efficiency movement changed during the years?
JH: I think a lot of things have changed and a lot of the fundamentals haven’t. There still seems to be some difficulty in using price and market forces alone as drivers to address energy-efficiency opportunities in buildings. We need other things, such as effective policies and standards, as well as intelligent, innovative market-driving programs. These have made and continue to make a difference. Yet as we get higher energy prices and even more technological opportunities, there’s always more to do.
What are the primary goals of the Alliance to Save Energy?
Since it was formed 31 years ago, the alliance has been a place for policy leaders, public officials and business leaders to come together and find common ground on energy efficiency. We have nearly 150 associate members, many of which are corporations, utility companies and industry associations. Some are public agencies. Our board of directors has representation from the public and private sectors and always is co-chaired by a sitting
U.S. senator and a business leader. In terms of our day-to-day activities, there are three main areas. One is that we analyze and advocate for energy-efficiency policies, particularly at the federal level, but to some extent at the state and local levels. The second is that we operate energy-efficiency programs selectively in areas where we think we have some special contributions to make. In some cases, it’s a special advantage when our corporate associate members contribute resources or in-kind effort to help support these projects. The third area is the development of public-information campaigns to raise awareness of energy efficiency and the implications of energy use for issues like climate change, pollution and economic stress, as well as to help consumers lower their own home and vehicle energy bills.
Is the alliance primarily focused on commercial buildings in the U.S.?
The alliance actually has activities in the residential and commercial sub-sectors. We also do work on energy efficiency in the industrial and utility sectors. A few things are being done with transportation, such as the Drive Smarter Challenge. This national information campaign to inform consumers about how to reduce their gasoline consumption through simple, affordable actions has a number of co-sponsors, including [Bentonville, Ark.-based] Wal-Mart.
About 80 to 85 percent of what we do is in the U.S., but we have active projects and staff in several other countries. For example, we currently have project activities in China, India, Mexico, South Africa and several eastern European countries.
Does the alliance collaborate with other organizations in its efforts to promote energy efficiency?
The alliance participates in many coalitions and collaborative activities. For many years we’ve jointly overseen a building-code project with two other non-governmental organizations, the [Washington-based] American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the [New York-based] Natural Resources Defense Council. This initiative, called the Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP), helps state and local builders, code officials and elected officials understand building codes related to energy efficiency and encourages them to adopt the latest model codes and work on improving compliance with those codes. We also conduct codes-related training and technical assistance at the state and local levels.
Another project in its early stages is called the Commercial Buildings Initiative. It’s an effort to create a very broad-based umbrella activity with public and private entities interested in advancing energy efficiency in new and existing commercial buildings. We are involved with policy advocacy related to CBI, and along with other energy-efficiency organizations, we strongly supported the authorizing language in the high-performance commercial buildings sections in the Energy Independence and Security Act enacted last December.
The [Atlanta-based] American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers Inc. and the [Washington-based] U.S. Green Building Council, as well as the [Washington-based] American Institute of Architects and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are among the charter founders of CBI. We often find ourselves working together on federal-legislation projects.
How has the green movement done in addressing energy issues?
Since my game is energy and energy efficiency, I always like to say there’s room for improvement. I think USGBC’s LEED program has made important strides in energy efficiency. For example, the recent amendment to LEED for New Construction has upped the ante on energy efficiency. For the first few years of LEED-NC, a building could get a Silver or possibly higher LEED rating without doing anything more than meeting code for energy. From our perspective in the energy-efficiency community, legitimacy as a green building really means doing more than the bare minimum.
LEED is a very broad environmental rating that allows choices among the different elements. That has a certain amount of merit. At the same time, I think the fact that there now are higher minimum thresholds for energy efficiency is important for legitimacy. It’s also important for economics because, of all the places you can earn LEED credits, the energy-efficiency credits are the ones that put dollars back in your pocket and pay for themselves. So it’s significant that more and more energy efficiency is being built into LEED and other systems like the [Portland, Ore.-based] Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes.
Attention also is being directed toward overall energy consumption, which goes beyond energy efficiency and raises questions like: Do we
really need quite as big a house? Do we need as much commercial floor space, or can we get the same job done and provide the same level of amenity using less space?
Those questions are important as we move into an era when energy efficiency isn’t driven by economics alone but comes as a response to climate change. Addressing energy use is one of the best and cheapest ways of mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions. In that sense, it’s not efficiency ratios that count, it’s magnitudes: the amount of energy we use, the amount of fuel we burn and the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere. We need to pay attention to questions of scale and consumption, not just efficiency ratios. But energy efficiency remains the quickest, cheapest, cleanest and one of the least painful ways to manage our consumption and CO2 emissions.
What do think about the drive to net-zero energy?
We believe that aspirational goals like the 2030 Challenge from Architecture 2030 [Santa Fe, N.M.] are extremely important. They’ve fired a lot of people’s imaginations. But we have to go beyond goal- setting. To be blunt, getting to those very low levels of energy consumption and ultimately to net zero, where the difference is made up by renewable energy, is going to require a significant jump in technology, practices, know-how, delivery systems and financing.
Some of my energy-efficiency colleagues like to say that we just need to apply today’s technology. I think that’s a bit of an overstatement. First of all, applying today’s technologies is an enormous job. Second, it’s true that with today’s technology you arguably can build a net-zero-energy building, but that depends on lots of “ifs.” For example, making that building affordable often depends on some level of subsidies, particularly with regard to renewable-energy sources.
You also need a modestly sized building, without extraordinary internal loads, in a reasonably benign climate and without severe site constraints. Finally, you need a very effective and well- integrated design, as well as a construction team and a client who really wants net-zero energy to happen. That is a big, long list of “ifs.”
What initiatives are being taken by the alliance today?
I mentioned CBI, which is online at www.zeroenergycbi.org. We think it’s enormously important to have a broadly based, collaborative effort involving the private sector, government agencies, NGOs, educational and research institutions, and more. It is aimed at putting together the next generations of technology and the policies to deliver and sustain that technology.
The alliance also is involved with building codes through BCAP. We’re continuing that effort and trying to raise the ante because much more is needed. Rather than acting as a market follower that eliminates the worst and least- efficient practices, we’re trying to make building energy codes a dynamic market driver. We can and should establish a series of targets for regular, periodic improvement in the stringency of energy codes. That’s the only way to have the market drive toward the kinds of very-lowenergy, net-zero goals that our colleagues in the 2030 Challenge are talking about.
We’ve been pushing for legislation to set a series of benchmarks for residential and nonresidential building codes for energy efficiency. Those follow along the same path as the 2030 Challenge rules. At the same time, we’ve gotten involved on the residential side with an initiative to push for a 30 percent jump in energy efficiency in the International Energy Conservation Code cycle that’s in progress right now. This is a parallel to what ASHRAE is trying to do with its 2010 revision to Standard 90.1 [“Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-rise Residential Buildings”].
Of course, once you have a strong model energy code, it still needs to be adopted by states and local jurisdictions. Then local code officials have to enforce it, and builders and developers who actually have to make buildings work have to comply with it.
I think that trend is upwards in the long term, but are we where we need to be to make the kind of changes that some policy makers are talking about? No. I think we have a lot further to go. We need to slow and ultimately flatten and reverse our energy growth rate. We need to de-carbonize our energy sources through renewable-energy sources. So I expect the Alliance to Save Energy will have plenty to do for quite a while.
THE ALLIANCE TO SAVE ENERGY
Based in Washington, D.C., the Alliance to Save Energy promotes energy efficiency worldwide. With programs throughout the U.S. and in more than 30 developing and transitional countries, the organization works to promote a sustainable energy future.
The alliance is a nonprofit, bipartisan public-policy organization that works in strategic partnerships with leaders in business, government, environmental organizations, educational institutions and consumer groups to encourage a more vibrant marketplace for energy-efficient products and practices. Its goals are to achieve a healthier economy, a cleaner environment and greater energy security. To learn more, visit www.ase.org.