Mr. President-Elect: Please open this memo Jan. 21

January 07, 2009 |

Dear Mr. President-elect of the United States: Sir, you’ve picked a solid energy, environment, and climate team. On behalf of America’s "Building Teams," we respectfully ask you to pass on the following unsolicited advice on issues of importance to the built environment.

To: Steven Chu, U.S. Energy Department; Lisa Jackson, U.S. EPA; Nancy Sutley, Council on Environmental Quality; Carol Browner, Climate Czar.

In your policy considerations, please consider the following points:
There’s only one sure route to “energy independence.” With only 3% of the world’s oil reserves, we can’t “drill” our way to energy independence, not while consuming 25% of the world’s energy supplies. Burning more carbon—including coal from coal-fired plants—will only produce more greenhouse gases. The only way to gain our energy independence is to use less energy. Doing so will make us more secure, not less.
Don’t assume new buildings alone will solve the problem. The U.S. will be lucky to build a million new homes and 20,000-30,000 commercial buildings in 2009. Compare that to the 108 million homes and 5 million commercial buildings already in the ground. Energy conservation in buildings must be directed where it can have the greatest impact—in the installed infrastructure.

Don’t fall in love with technology.Windmills, PVs, and the like look great, but they’re not cost-effective, even if oil prices go back up. At the same time, we need serious R&D into technologies like carbon capture and storage, which sucks up emissions from coal-fired plants and buries it. But we can’t wait forever for these technologies.” Instead we must …
Do the simple things first. Correct building orientation to take advantage of the sun. Better building insulation. Improved lighting and lighting controls. Tighter building envelopes. Energy-efficient HVAC and water heating systems. Properly installed air barriers. Duh!

Don’t fall into the “zero-energy” trap. Zero-energy buildings and homes sound great—just as personal helicopters once did. But ZEBs and ZEHs are both unrealistic and wasteful of precious financial resources. It’s better to apply cost-effective, simple strategies like those described above to save 50-70% on energy use over millions of homes and buildings, than to try to squeeze the last drops of energy savings out of new buildings by using expensive, low-payback technologies. Instead …
Consider “near-zero, energy-ready” buildings and homes. These would push energy conservation as far as possible at reasonable cost, while preparing the home or building to “accept” more sophisticated technologies in the future, as their costs come down.

Most of all, Mr. President-elect, you need a clearly defined strategy to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions. In our next memo, sir, we’ll tell you how to do it.

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