How do we promote green building in the cheap energy era?

health and comfort
© The future of green building: Health and Comfort

Years ago I spoke with the builder of a very green prefab, who told me about someone who came in and saw the bamboo floors (yes, they were a green thing once) and asked "how does that save energy?" For years, particularly in the USA, the green movement was positioned as an energy saving, money saving thing. Now we are reaping what we sowed, as low energy prices dampen interest in the green movement. As Martin Holladay notes in Green Building Advisor: In 2016, green builders will need to face the implications of low energy prices. It's an important article, so thanks to GBA for offering a “GBA Prime Sneak Peek” to non-subscribers so that we can discuss it.

Martin starts with the obvious: Interest in green building is down because energy is cheap.

Let’s face it: most Americans don’t care too much about saving energy when energy is affordable. Compared to your cell phone bill, Internet bill, and cable TV bill, your electricity bill may seem reasonable. So why worry about it? When energy prices drop, the payback period for energy-efficiency measures increases. Some homeowners are happy to spend $6,000 on attic insulation if the payback period for the investment is 10 years. Once the payback period stretches to 20 years, though, the investment seems less wise.

garage doorNate Adams: "Save thousands"- we've been over-promising energy savings for years. /via

Frankly, looking back over the lack of success we all had when energy prices were high, I am not sure a ten year payback made sense to people either. That's why the salespeople promised that changing windows would cut energy bills in half or a new garage door would save thousands in energy bills. The industry did itself no service by over-selling the instant savings. People have always wanted instant gratification and when they didn't get it, the whole green movement suffered. However low energy prices just make the selling job harder still.

Martin then goes on to look at the energy supply side, noting that fracking and new drilling technologies have dramatically increased US oil and natural gas production and killed worries about peak oil. He has separate points about the oil sands and coal industry being in trouble, but it is all really one story: gas is cheap so less coal is being burned, and the Saudis are going to keep pumping oil to depress prices until they drive more expensive tight oil out of business. That could change in oh, about a week if the Iran/Saudi dispute disrupts any production; remember what the first gulf war did to energy prices- they doubled. But hey, in the short term prices are low so why worry?

Solar rooftop installerSolarcity/Promo image

Getting on to alternative energy, Martin writes that The PV revolution has barely begun. When this snowball starts rolling downhill, get ready for an avalanche. Here is where I begin to disagree. The PV revolution can be snuffed out with the flick of a pen, as is happening right now in Nevada and the UK. Electric utilities are facing major disruption and they are fighting back. However there are some fundamental issues that have to be faced with the whole net-zero solar on every roof and batteries in every basement idea, and the ensuing "grid defection" that Martin talks about. I don't see it as an answer; As the City of Toronto's chief planner tweets:


More and more of us live in cities and are concerned about the impact of sprawl, and rooftop solar just doesn't work in that environment. Too many people and not enough roof. But more on that in a separate post.

COP21Mark Dixon. Demonstrators take to the street during the U.N. Climate talks in Paris. The sign reads: “It’s the climate that’s in a state of emergency.” /CC BY 2.0
The Paris agreement shows that the international political mood has shifted. Martin writes:

I’m a cynic. Here’s a cynic’s report of what happened at the Paris climate change talks: not much. All of the announced carbon-reduction targets were non-binding. And even if every country manages to meet the non-binding targets, the efforts will be too little, too late.

Then he goes all mushy and says "I'm also imbued with hope." He claims that "the international mood has irrevocably shifted" but I am not sure that is true at all- the developing countries are all demanding the right to catch up, Britain is backtracking on everything, I am trying to think of a single country that is serious about this issue. Not one is doing anything but lip service.

So what's the answer? Green builders need to focus on issues other than low energy bills.

Most homeowners aren’t willing to spend much money to lower their energy bills. Green builders can respond to homeowner indifference about energy costs two ways: either indignantly or pragmatically. The indignant path might include exasperated outbursts — "think about our dying planet," perhaps — along with attempts to educate homeowners about their ethical responsibility to use as little energy as possible.

Martin is certainly correct that the polar bears on melting ice floes no longer are a hot sell. He doesn't get into the politics of this, how environmentalism in America has been poisoned thanks to political polarization, how the whole movement has been Algored. It doesn't help a business when almost half of the country is alienated from what you are trying to sell. And having written we should be talking about comfort, not energy efficiency I certainly agree with Martin here:

I would advise green builders that it’s probably time to stop selling your work on the basis of low energy bills. According to most marketing experts, the new recommended mantra is “a green home is more comfortable than a conventional home.”

I do strongly disagree with his last statement, in this era when health and wellness are such big issues for people:

Some green builders use another marketing ploy: bragging that green homes are healthy homes. If you’re tempted to follow this path, be careful. There is very little evidence that occupants of green homes are healthier than occupants of conventional homes. Without any data to support your claims, it’s better to steer clear of any discussions about occupant health.

Just look at the pivot Rick Fedrizzi and the USGBC are doing, to embrace the new WELL building standard. Fedrizzi writes in the Guardian:

In 2016, erecting sustainable, profitable green buildings will no longer be enough to stand out. Buildings will also be expected to directly contribute to the health and wellbeing of the people who live, work and learn inside them. For buildings, healthy will become the new green.

I think Martin discounts this too quickly. Buildings can and do affect health and wellness. I said it before: "We should be focusing on people, not buildings; that the real role of a building is to keep us healthy, happy, safe and comfortable."

As is often the case with Martin Holladay, I don't agree with everything that he writes, and I certainly have learned that the feeling is mutual. (He called me a Luddite!) But he is making a fundamental point here that we all have to think about: What are we selling and to whom. I can't disagree with that. Read it all here.

Tags: Energy | Energy Efficiency | Green Building | Housing Industry

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