Reducing Emissions and Making Changes

Jim Messner

If you’ve followed along with my blog, Building My Green Life, you know how strongly I feel about making smart, sustainable choices in life and in my work. With approximately 40% of energy use in the U.S. attributed to buildings, the architecture, design and construction community is both the problem and the solution to reduced energy consumption at home, and abroad.

Pursuant to that is the 2030 Challenge, which is known for its bold – some would even say audacious – quest to reduce fossil fuel consumption among new and renovated buildings to carbon neutrality by 2030. Related to the 2030 Challenge, which was created by Ed Mazria and Architecture 2030, is the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2030 Commitment. The AIA 2030 Commitment is based on the principles of the 2030 Challenge but adds annual progress reporting requirements to measure progress and help architecture firms hold themselves accountable year over year.

SHP Leading Design signed up for the AIA 2030 Commitment in 2009, and has consequently been analyzing and reporting the projected energy use of the projects we design for six years now. Each year, our reporting has shown progress in reducing energy use. Our assessment of 25 eligible projects that had design work completed in 2014 shows we’ve reduced the predicted energy use of new construction by 61.8%.  For comparison purposes, the projects we designed in 2009 showed a 41.6% reduction.

Clients appreciate this reduction; increased energy efficiency means decreased energy bills. The financial benefit alone has made the 2030 Commitment an easy sell to clients.

But, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We’ve hit a point where we are doing just about as much as we possibly can to reduce energy consumption at the building and systems levels from a design standpoint.

SHP is not alone in this quandary, either. Like us, many firms nationwide have minimized energy consumption as much as they can and now need to find new ways for their projects to continue their progress toward the 2030 Commitment. There are three possible paths forward: We must either buy renewable energy credits for our projects, install building-level renewable energy systems or look to energy providers to help us to continue the progress toward carbon neutrality

Going Green by Buying Credits

Renewable energy credits, or RECs, used to most often be associated with the goal of achieving LEED certification. Today, many businesses are willing to purchase RECs – or certificates which are issued for electricity that is produced using cleaner, renewable sources of generation – in order to get credit for being more sustainable. RECs incentivize carbon-neutral renewables without being tied to actual renewable energy use. In other words, clients can purchase RECs whether or not they have access to green energy sources; the certificate is equal to actually consuming the energy.

RECs represent a realistic way to meet the carbon neutral emissions guidelines issued by the 2030 Commitment. But they can be a tough sell to clients; there aren’t any tax credits or utility discounts associated with the purchase of RECs, so some clients may be slow to get on board.

Supplement with On-Site Green Energy Sources

On-site renewable energy systems naturally help to offset building energy costs. These  include the installation of solar panels and wind turbines on the client’s building, which help to power building systems and offset fossil fuel energy consumption.

Not surprisingly, these systems are more effective for some clients than for others. Some areas of the country with abundant sunshine, like Denver, or high wind speeds, like Chicago, have a natural leg-up in the renewable energy game. SHP’s home in Cincinnati, however, is often too cloudy to make solar power a good financial investment and has sustained wind speeds that are too low to make wind power feasible.

As designers, we don’t necessarily have any say over how clients get their energy. We can and often do suggest solar panels, building-sourced renewables and other forms of on-site energy management. These choices have become more attractive as the technology has become more affordable, but as described above, they still aren’t an option for everyone. Clients may not have the budget or the desire to install/maintain this equipment in the long run. Sometimes, economic and practical benefits simply outweigh ecological ones.

Changing How Energy is Delivered

In order for the industry as a whole to hit our 2030 goals, we’re going to need help from energy providers. That not only means that utilities need to invest in technology and infrastructure that supports alternative energy, but also make it affordable to deliver. Arriving there means adjusting public policy, which currently benefits coal and natural gas energy more than clean energy sources.

Public opinion is another key factor. When consumers stand up and say, “We’re not going to buy from XYZ utility because you’re not green. We’re willing to pay more for power from a renewable source,” it sends a strong message to energy providers that more sustainable energy sources are not only preferable, but mandatory. Energy deregulation has helped; more customers have the choice to source their energy from renewable providers.

Both of these options require social and cultural change to truly take effect. In the meantime, it’s important for us to focus on the positive impacts of the 2030 Challenge and ways we can prevent backsliding in our clients’ energy consumption. That passion for continuing to make progress despite the odds isn’t something you’ll see on a bottom line report. It really is a choice to do what is best for the environment. And that’s where we’ll continue to lead as we look ahead to 2030.

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