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Environment & Science

With new work toward energy efficiency in buildings, a reminder of the energy problem that never goes away

With the LEED gold-certified Santa Monica Public Library as its backdrop, Environment California released a new energy efficiency report called "Building a Better America." In it, the group argues the best place to start saving energy is probably the house or office you're sitting in.

The building sector consumes more energy than any other sector of the economy, including transportation and industry. The buildings where we live and work account for about 40 percent of our total energy consumption and nearly three quarters of our electricity use. This level of energy use costs the United States approximately $400 billion every year.

EC says that by following recommendations it lays out in a two-dozen page report, California will cut its greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by "11 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030." 

Other environmental groups are concerned about energy efficiency in buildings, too. As the Natural Resources Defense Council reports, California's Energy Commission is considering an update of its standards for new and renovated buildings--its Title 24 program:

The Commission’s proposed standards for new buildings are projected to reduce annual energy use of single family homes by 30% (compared with a home built to the current 2008 code), and more than 30% for commercial buildings on their regulated loads – lighting, heating and ventilation, and cooling. Once the standard is in full effect in 2014, California will save at least $100 million a year in the form of lower electricity bills.

Those standards were developed over two years, with business, government and environmental groups weighing in. NRDC's Jamy Bacchus also writes that these "aggressive" standards, once passed, will yield loads of greenhouse gas savings: "300,000 tons of CO2 emissions in the first year (equivalent to removing 53,000 cars off the road), prevent the need to build 8 or more large 500 MW power plants over next 30 years, and create up to 3,500" new jobs.

Environment California's report highlights work to cut energy demand at the California Public Utilities Commission via BBEES: "Big, Bold, Energy Efficiency Strategies" for achieving zero-net energy in buildings, developed jointly by private industry, regulators, the investor-owned utilities (who are required to care about energy efficiency) and efficiency boosters--all laid out in a 3-year plan

Thing is, the progress report from last winter doesn't make it sound like the strategies are working as well as they could:

There is a real risk that the Strategic Plan will not meet its goals, unless the next decade sees a more concerted effort on the part of the IOUs [investor-owned utilities, like Southern California Edison & PG&E], state and federal agencies and market actors. Some of the constraints California faces include an unprecedented state budget deficit, which has hampered the ability to timely hire and retain staff at the CPUC and the California Energy Commission (CEC) to oversee progress on strategic action plans...Some of the Strategic Plan’s goals can be realized through existing vehicles (e.g., efficiency programs of California’s IOUs and/or collaborative efforts with other state agencies). Still, fully achieving the Plan goals will require sustained leadership and new approaches to organization and funding of this ambitious long-term agenda.

Maybe things aren't as bad as they sound, but maybe it's time for new approaches. Still, it's important to remember that top-to-bottom change brings its own set of risks. Some advocates for speeding up energy efficiency say zero net energy buildings "could have unintended consequences for the electrical grid and/or miss opportunities for additional value creation." What groups like EC and NRDC are saying is, talking about energy efficiency is great, but don't forget to do the energy efficiency, too.