It’s Pretty Weird that We Have So Many Energy Efficient Buildings

Now, you’re thinking, “C’mon, Eric, you talk about energy efficiency all the time and how we’re going to be the international hub of the energy efficiency industry cluster. How can you think it’s weird that we have so many energy efficient buildings?” And by “so many”, I assume that you’re referring to the latest news that Seattle ranks 16th in U.S. for energy-efficient buildings. (And that’s total number…imagine how we rank in per capita number.)

But, yes, I think it’s weird. When I talk about being an international EE leader, I’m talking about developing and selling the goods and services that make other places energy efficient…places that have high power rates and need to make those investments. But, here, everyone always talks about how our electricity rates are so low that it doesn’t make sense to invest in energy efficiency. So how come we do it anyway?

I think you know what I think. It’s all about consumer preference. Literally. We’ve just got a whole bunch of really environmentally conscious folks here who want to walk the talk, and they’re demanding Energy Star and LEED certifications from their real estate developers. Which is great and all. Except, how do you make policy and investment decisions as a region based on something as intangible as preference? I thought that the free market only responds to price signals, and that carbon pricing was the only way to ensure that we take advantage of the unmet potential identified by folks like McKinsey:

The research shows that the U.S. economy has the potential to reduce annual non-transportation energy consumption by roughly 23 percent by 2020, eliminating more than $1.2 trillion in waste – well beyond the $520 billion upfront investment (not including program costs) that would be required. The reduction in energy use would also result in the abatement of 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually – the equivalent of taking the entire U.S. fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks off the roads. Such energy savings will be possible, however, only if the United States can overcome significant sets of barriers. These barriers are widespread and persistent, and will require an integrated set of solutions to overcome them – including information and education, incentives and financing, codes and standards, and deployment resources well beyond current levels. (emphasis added)

And of course, everything that McKinsey says is true. Just because we’ve got a bunch of Energy Star buildings doesn’t mean that we have enough Energy Star buildings. And just because we have them doesn’t mean that the country as a whole is moving far enough and fast enough in the right direction. But it is interesting, and it does mean that potentially the energy efficiency adoption strategy is different here than it is in other places…that we can indeed develop a strategy that’s more focused on “information and education” rather than “incentives, financing, codes and standards.”

Personally, and I don’t mean this in an Uptight Seattleite kind of way, I think that what it means is that we need to find ways to publicly reward the adoption of energy efficiency. Speaking of Uptight Seattleite, there was a great letter to him one time from someone that said “I use grey water to water my lawn, but I don’t want people to think that my green grass represents lack of conservation…is it okay for me to put a sign in my yard that says “watered with grey water?” Yes, that’s a satire, but it’s not too far from the truth. Another example is those folks with biodiesel BMWs…they make sure that they have a big “powered by biodiesel” bumper sticker so that you don’t judge them as they motor down the street. People care about being environmentally conscious but they also like their friends and neighbors to know it, and I have no problem with that.

So what does that look like? Public lists of new energy efficiency adopters? “The Mayor’s Energy Efficiency Awards” to publicly praise major investments? A literal green star on people’s doors so that neighbors and solicitors know when they’re knocking? It sounds crazy, but it works. And if that’s what it takes, then I’m all for it.

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