The list of President Obama's We Can't Wait initiatives now includes a major new investment program for upgrading the energy efficiency of buildings. Announced last week, the program consists of $4 billion worth of public and private funding that will create thousands of new green jobs related to retrofitting office buildings, industrial plants, government facilities, hospitals, schools, and other large structures nationwide. It expands on an existing Clinton Global Initiative energy efficiency investment program announced last summer, that has already committed $500 million in private sector funding for energy upgrades.
The new initiative packs a lot of punch into a small taxpayer investment, since the $2 billion from the taxpayer side involves paying for the work through future energy savings, without up-front costs. As for the private sector, there's more to it than just saving money on energy bills.
Why the Focus on Buildings?
Commercial buildings alone gobbled up 20 percent of the energy in the U.S. economy last year, so a program that improves existing buildings nationwide is a logical priority for a federal energy strategy. There is no need to wait for the development of new cutting edge technologies, because an enormous amount of savings can be achieved within a relatively short time using existing technologies and management strategies. New York City's iconic Empire State Building is a case in point. It took just a few years and an investment of only $13 million to reduce the aged building's energy consumption by almost 40 percent and lop more than one-third off its annual energy bill of $11.4 million. The Empire State Building recently won LEED gold status for its efforts, and more savings is in store from a planned upgrade of its 68 elevators.
New Tech for Old Buildings
New technologies will soon start to play an increasingly important role in building upgrades, though. The new funding program is another step forward for the Better Buildings Initiative announced by President Obama earlier this year, in which the president exhorted universities to lead the way by upgrading their campuses. Essentially this amounted to a call for research institutions to focus on developing and commercializing new technologies for energy efficient buildings. Columbia University, for example, has already partnered with the City of New York on the new NYC Urban Technology Innovative Center, which aims at creating a significant new employment sector in the city, in careers related to energy efficiency upgrades.
More Energy Goodies in Store for Building Owners
It's practically a given that a well planned energy efficiency upgrade will pay for itself within a relatively short period of time, and that's a good enough incentive on its own merits. Building owners are also beginning to explore the merits of energy storage as an additional benefit, as described in a recent report on the emerging energy storage market by Pike research. The advent of new technologies for harvesting and storing energy on site has provided many property owners with an opportunity to add value to their buildings by generating energy with a solar or wind installation for example, and either storing the excess energy for use on site during peak periods when grid-supplied energy is more expensive, or selling it back to the grid. To get the maximum bottom line benefit it helps if the building's own energy consumption is cut to the bone, so all the more reason for owners of older, energy inefficient buildings to invest in conservation.
Follow on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.