Last month, when President Obama unveiled the Better Buildings Initiative to provide incentives for businesses to become more energy efficient, we were reminded how efficiency is a critical, but often overlooked component of our national energy policy. Sure, lots of people drive hybrid cars, and use energy-efficient light bulbs in their homes. But beyond this low-hanging fruit, there remains a lot of waste to address.
Consider that last year, commercial buildings consumed about 20% of all the energy in the U.S. economy. Certain industries, such as hospitals, which consume more than twice as much energy as the typical commercial building, have great room for improvement. And the volumes of energy that technology-heavy industries spend on computer servers is so large that it is hard to quantify.
What’s a consumer – already challenged to fill the tank and heat the house – to do? The good news is that even when it comes to large commercial buildings, there are a lot of things that consumers can do to make them more efficient. Consider this recent tip sheet from the Wall Street Journal on ways to make buildings more energy efficient. Number one on the list: Change the corporate culture. This includes a long list of items from banning extras like Christmas lights lining the cubicle to reconsidering the space heater under the desk. Other steps it cited, such as turning off computers at night and lowering cubicle walls to maximize the flow of air and sunlight are also small, individual changes that can make a big difference when adopted en masse.
Clearly it will take more than just turning off the space heater to achieve the 20% reduction in consumption that the Better Buildings Initiative targets. The good news is that on a larger scale too, buildings are making strides. Children’s Hospital Boston has made a series of changes from green lighting to water conservation and better ventilation systems, which are saving about $950,000 a year in utility costs. Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. has used software to integrate its energy management and has been able to reduce campus-wide energy consumption by 10% in less than a year. And to offer just one more example, Geisinger Health System in Charlotte, North Carolina, has incorporated a series of energy-efficient measures that have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 80% annually.
Inevitably, when oil prices rise, the consumer in all of us tend to focus on how this will impact the cost of our commutes and our home heating and cooling. It bears reminding that these are not the only ways we pay for power and that if we want to conserve we must be always vigilant, even after we step out of our cars or our homes. Tax incentives, better access to financing and other strategies outlined in the Better Buildings Initiative may help buildings tackle some of their biggest energy challenges, but to achieve lasting efficiency, it will take both big and small steps.