Is a 20% Building Energy Reduction Enough?

With impending climate failure a reality, Americans need to ask ourselves whether the course currently charted is even viable. Government is working on awareness, but neither the Congressional quagmire nor the average citizen’s apathy is encouraging.  The magnitude of the environmental problem is so great that we need to work in unison if we are to devise meaningful solutions.

Society seems to be on the Green Talk Circuit, but real environmental partners – both within the multifamily housing sector and without – are rare. Unfortunately, voluntary compliance can be sketchy and insufficient, partly because we don’t really want to sacrifice anything. We want someone else to sacrifice, as that’s the American way. There are the do-gooders, and then there are the rest of us.  To be fair, many of us are trying and - after educating ourselves - more are joining the effort.  Luckily environmental stewardship is no longer the ‘lunatic fringe’, but the sane posture given our precarious situation.

Today’s Players:

The Department of Energy offers its voluntary ENERGYSTAR program. Focused on energy efficiency in appliances and lighting, given available technology, its energy  reduction goal of 15% to 20% is modest.

The U.S. Green Building Council which developed the LEED standard (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has become synonymous with green building across the country, but its main product is clearly education. This is great, of course, but the USGBC has produced three times more LEED AP professionals than there are green building projects on which they can serve. (Source: National Public Radio)

Then there are the green building models offered by the construction industry, such as GreenBuild. These tend to have great developer appeal, as the USGBC’s certification costs are avoided and urban municipalities gift trade-offs like greater density and reduced parking requirements.  Of course, in theory we citizens gain more open space, better building envelopes and higher efficiency systems. However, the cost differential can be minor between the lowest quality insulation and the highest, so why do we consistently settle for so little?

About a third of all new construction has labeled itself  ’green’ – which is astonishing in itself – but green buildings currently comprise only about 3% of our existing building stock. We are a smart people but we are reluctant to address our drafty, poorly-insulated existing building stock, which is really our biggest energy challenge. Looking at residential buildings, for example, if we are to meaningfully reduce energy consumption we may want to consider:

(1) Retrofits of our existing buildings

(2) When a new structure is designed and built, it should have a hundred or even a two hundred year building life.

If the housing market’s fall creates one good result, it may be that people will begin to see “home” with a longer term view. We have not only been living on credit in our daily lives, we have been hitting the ‘plastic’ in our global lives as well by using more resources than the earth can replenish.  Yet there is always hope. After all, we humans are an enormously creative bunch. What we lack is the will to actually change things. Some of us can remember when Americans were loved and admired for our innovation around the world.  With a patriotism and civic devotion few today understand, taxpayers proudly invested in research and development in science, building, technology, mining, farming, medicine, infrastructure and space exploration.

Some investment capital was private, of course, but most of the research was funneled through and paid for by the federal government’s programs, e.g., you and me. The reality was that any sacrifice was comparatively small on our individual parts. It was understood that we had a responsibility to future generations. We viewed superior technology as the best way to maintain our national security. Although we collaborated, independence from other nations was the core of our motivation.

Like today, any technological or scientific advances were quickly adopted by big business, Pharma, the defense industry and individual companies who improved and advanced them.  Then one day our corporations were all multinationals and the lines blurred between American commerce and the companies who incorporated in places like the Cayman Islands or flew the British flag, like BP Petroleum.

Perhaps this was the beginning of a sometimes intentional and even inadvertent transfer of the training and technologies that had given us that superior edge and provided prosperity to our citizens.  Maybe it was through oversight or even arrogance, but our technology ended up in countries like China in exchange for the cheap goods their less-costly labor produced.  It wasn’t as if nobody was watching. It was that as more and more of our manufacturing, mining and other ’dirty’ jobs were outsourced, we forgot what it meant to buy American.

After all, the corporate brands we grew up with were no longer American companies anyway and everybody ‘knew’ unions were the reason American goods had become so expensive by comparison.  We didn’t think about the child laborer who wove that rug or sewed those clothing seams together. So we forgot that some of our neighbors and friends and relatives used to hold those blue collar jobs.  After all, who really wanted to work in a factory? So American factories closed as those jobs became outsourced and not even the local politicians wanted to fight to keep the doors open. Then when that worked so well for the consumer and the corporation, technology made it possible to outsource even more jobs. We hadn’t been making anything anyway, but suddenly even the American-based customer service rep was being laid off.

We noticed when a tech in India or the Philippines answered our call but how we loved our cheap computers, cell phones and laptops. The problem is, of course, that once there is a monopoly, no one saves and everyone pays more. How does all this affect multifamily housing? The American worker - remember the taxpayer whose contributions helped fund those innovations -  no longer gets a fair return on investment. Hence, it is more and more difficult to pay rent, never mind dream of owning one’s own home. Even jobs that used to be sacred in the United States – education, high tech and management - if not outsourced directly are filled with foreign nationals willing to work for less with visas on two-year and four-year renewable programs that use legal ways to skirt the intent of the law. Even as some areas of the country experience 17% unemployment (Crook County, Oregon is an example) companies are able to obtain these visas by claiming no Americans are capable of performing this same work. Few challenge these visa arrangements, even when it is an American who has trained his or her replacement.

It is not just big business pulling this one either. Public school districts, state and local municipal governments across the nation have been balancing their budgets by ‘contracting’ through other companies to provide a layer of camouflage. These contractors hire and/or import low-wage workers and exclude benefits that a worker employed directly by a government entity would be entitled to receive.

Now America finds itself in the unenviable position of negotiating with little to offer other than a distressed consumer market. We have created an unhealthy dependence on other countries and multinational corporations because we no longer have the capacity to manage our own information, run our businesses, manufacturer products or mine materials ourselves. The best example of this quandary is our dependence on China.

China not only lends our government (meaning us) money, but supplies 97% of all the rare earth minerals required to manufacture everything from hybrid vehicles to energy-saving light bulbs, wind turbines and missiles. Of course, we used to produce our own rare earth minerals, but rather than mine them at the retail cost here, mining operations were transferred to China. We  gave them our technology – upon which they have since improved -  taught them how to use it and closed down our mines. After decades of buying these goods and essential materials from China, Greenwood Village – owned by Colorado-based Molycorp - is the only remaining U.S. company able to produce rare earth materials from its stockpiles. No one has a functioning mine in the U.S.

Of course, the optimists among us suggest we simply start mining for rare earth minerals again.  Boeing - which uses many of these materials in manufacturing its defense products - has begun remotely searching for REM deposits, but these minerals are “rare”, as the name implies. General Electric and Toyota are also quietly looking for ways to assure a supply for their products’ manufacture. Unfortunately at present we have no rare earth metal mining capacity and experts predict building an independent supply chain could take up to 15 years. Nobody needs to be an economist to predict the end of this story, but here’s a good example of what we can expect.

China announced in June of 2010 that it would reduce global exports of these minerals. Prices on rare earth metals (REMs) soared by almost 20% overnight.  The latest indicator of China’s future policies was its response to a diplomatic incident with Japan. After a Chinese ship collided with two of Japan’s Coast Guard vessels in mid-September, Japan detained the captain claiming he was negligent and at fault. After initial diplomatic demands were ignored, China retaliated by completely halting exports of rare earth minerals to Japan. Panicked by the damage a prolonged  rare earth embargo would have on its economy, Japan quickly released the Captain. This may have been the beginning of the new leverage China will enjoy internationally, but it is important to note that this might not be a political but rather an economic move.  China has itself been using up its supply of rare earth materials more quickly than it can mine and refine them. Although we may perceive this as hoarding, China is unlikely to change anything but its prices.

Very few rare earths are getting through to Japan, which has forced them to expand an electronics rare earth minerals and metals recycling program from electronics. As Japan has almost no resources of its own, it gathers these electronics from around the world, including the United States. (China prohibits export of its used electronics, incidentally.)

My point is not that we are all going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket, but that America’s obsession with fueling consumption, ignoring the waste we create and focusing on the quick buck has not been a forwarding-thinking strategy. We have been deluding ourselves and pretending (1) it is possible to rely on the Middle East to satisfy our fossil-fuel addiction, (2) countries like China will continue to provide us (and our allies like Japan) with the essential materials needed to manufacture energy-efficient products in some sort of Kumbaya policy and  (3) we can blindly continue our energy and resource wasting lifestyles without wreaking havoc on our economy, our quality of life and our planet.

Lectures are counter-productive, but we do need to understand and face our current reality.  In the immediate future we will pay a hard cost for the lack of a coherent waste reduction and recycling program, no meaningful rare earth reclamation capabilities or supplies and other thoughtless actions of the past.

No matter how many smart grids we build to transport energy, we are dealing with a planet that has limited resources. Even if we envision the creation of an alternative energy production behemoth, everything depends on reducing our energy needs to lighten the global impact of 6,874,057,792 heavily-carbonized, human footprints.(Source: U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of the world population on October 9, 2010)

If the rare earth metals and minerals needed to produce PV arrays, wind turbines and other alternative energy technologies are indeed as rare as we believe them to be, our national independence is already at great risk. We have learned the cost of keeping an international oil supply chain open in our attempt to control reserves in the Middle East.  This should not have been a surprise, as human nature is predictable. When the U.S. was a major oil producer in the early 20th century, we enacted an oil-embargo against Japan in retaliation for its Manchurian occupation. This embargo became a significant source of hostility and contributed to the build-up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. So as a wise foreign and domestic policy, energy conservation and efficiency efforts at home are as critical to our society as any military or diplomatic effort might be elsewhere.

Although we taught them to overeat, acquire too much, waste and be self-centered, the current generation of young adults has risen above it. They care and want to do something, anything, to reverse climate failure and are making choices to support those views. One can only hope that their example will inspire the rest of us to  use our resources more responsibly.


  1. Posted November 2, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Very informative piece! I do a lot of research into ways for property owners to save money while still running energy efficient buildings. Have you heard of the website? It’s an excellent source to learn about state and federal incentives for energy conservation. The database is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

    Below is a link to our post about the site if you are interested- thanks!

  2. Posted November 2, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for dropping in, Allison, and thank you for the link to your site! As your post points out, the site is a great resource. Rebates currently available for EnergyStar front-loading clothes washing machines, energy efficient dishwashers and energy efficient dryers have never been better either. You can search for a state’s specific rebates, but don’t forget to search the manufacturers’s websites, contact local utilities and touch base with sustainability non-profits. They may have valuable information to share. If a building is ‘affordable’ housing, additional rebates may be available.

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