Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County Board Chair and former chair of the Minnesota DFL Party, is the owner of GreenMark, a leading environmental marketing agency. GreenMark, the originator of the Minnesota Twins/Pentair Rain Water Recycle partnership, is currently finalizing the state's largest solar energy installation while delivering sustainable results on behalf of leading brands, nonprofits, public agencies and the public.

Building efficiency: the invisible clean energy strategy

Posted by: Mark Andrew Updated: July 28, 2014 - 2:43 PM

Most energy experts agree that energy efficiency in the built environment is the low hanging fruit for reducing the production of deadly greenhouse gases.

After all, it costs a lot less to save energy than make it. Buildings account for around 70% of electrical consumption and 40% of carbon emissions in the U.S. That puts building efficiency at ground zero for strategies to reduce the dangers of climate change.

With the dark cloud of global warming upon us, we should have already achieved the critical milestone of a vigorous national energy savings policy. But that hasn’t happened. Business has not responded, governmental efforts have been disjointed and even the ingenuity of American entrepreneurs hasn’t figured it out yet.

Why?

Reducing energy demand through conservation is attainable, laudable and a safe investment that delivers high returns. But managing energy is also a different animal for attacking greenhouse gas emissions than supply-side solutions like renewables.

For one thing, building efficiency solutions are disjointed and span many, often unrelated applications—insulation, air conditioning, controls, lighting, maintenance and others. What ought to be a multi-faceted opportunity is instead a hodgepodge of multiple products and protocols.

It hasn’t helped that building performance is not the province of the national government. Unlike other countries, state and local building codes govern building standards here at home, and this makes a coordinated conservation policy elusive.

The inefficiency of building efficiency can be attributed mostly to the one-word American business mantra:

Cash.

No one seems to have the up-front capital to make building efficiency investments. This is true even in the face of hefty returns—often 30% or more. Everyone agrees the commitment will pay for itself many times over.

Incentives served up by we-the-people through tax breaks or utilities deliver some positive results, and so do programs that educate consumers about environmental and financial benefits of sustainable practices. The Federal Energy Star program, which we see on consumer products like TV’s, air conditioners and other appliances, has saved over $230 billion in energy costs.

Local and state governments are also finding creative ways to finance conservation programs via off-balance-sheet strategies. PACE programs, which allow voluntary property tax assessments to finance efficiency investments, exist in many states, including Minnesota. A PACE program that is promoted and operated at scale by a municipality or County could provide a huge boost in building performace and environmental best practices, but local government units need to step up to deliver these opportunities at scale.

Entrepreneurs will solve the riddle of cash starved companies. As is happening in renewable energy, with hundreds of thousands of small enterprises delivering the bulk of renewable energy innovation, entrepreneurs will find ways to bring safety and sanity to our building energy policies and practices.

These ambitious change agents are willing to shrink their profits or defer them in exchange for controlling a portion of our energy future. Social entrepreneurs believe their activities will generate “climate wealth” while doing their share to preserve our world and protect it from the extreme weather predicted in most major studies.

The entrepreneurs will have a bigger impact on both the supply and the demand side of the energy equation than large corporations, in part because they are doing this not for the money, but because they want to save the world.

With the coming boom of efficiency reforms in the built environment, and a flourishing renewable energy industry coming into bloom, maybe they will.

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