Retrofitting Your Grandmothers House

New construction is just a piece of the building challenge— there's a dark side to the remodel business, too, and remembering Mazria, we have to fix existing buildings if we want a prayer of solving climate change. There are millions of hogs like the one I'm typing this in throughout the United States, the vast majority built to very lame energy efficiency standards. So what's our problem? Let's get on it! Yet in this arena, too, there are significant barriers. As David Roberts has

^Architects.

pointed out on Grist.org, "With today's technology, we know how to make new buildings net energy generators, and we know how to retrofit existing buildings to reduce their energy consumption by well over 50%, in some cases 90-95%. We just need someone to pay for it." Roberts notes that investment in such retrofits has three main features: (1) it is capital-intensive up front (with huge labor costs); (2) it pays off slowly and modestly; and (3) it's a sure thing in terms of eventual savings. "Hypercapitalism being what it is . . . investors are heavily predisposed against investments with features 1 and 2."7

Environmental Building News reported in July 2007 that there were 124 million housing units in the United States, ignoring commercial buildings. These units used 21 percent of the energy in the United States, or 36 percent of total electricity consumption. That accounts for 330 million metric tons of carbon. We have to fix these buildings, too!

In the same way that we need an outside entity to offer cash to "prime the pump" for business efficiency programs, fixing old buildings, as Roberts points out, seems to be an obvious role for government. "Figuring out financing mechanisms for such investments is a public policy with guaranteed payback, considerable social benefit, and built in political support—a gimme."

We need such a mechanism at Aspen Skiing Company. The planet may be warming, but where I work, our bean counters are freezing. Downstairs in the finance department, every single person in a dozen offices and cubicles has at least one inefficient electric space heater on, all winter long. I have seen our CFO typing in fingerless gloves. Why? Our office building's heating system doesn't work so well, at least not down there. (Other parts of the building are too hot.) In one room the heat was stuck on for a month—in the summer.

This situation may sound like an unfortunate inconvenience, and you might be thinking that I should stop whining. But it's nothing so trivial. This building—with our grumpy and cold accountants, our overheating marketing team, and Barb at the front desk with the door open and the heat on (not her fault)—represents ground zero of the climate wars; our very future depends on fixing buildings just like this one.

Here's the problem: It's viciously difficult. Here in the Aspen Skiing Company office building, for example, we have "gotten on it." We've been trying to fix this thirty-year-old pig for four years now. And we've found that the cost of the fix, using any rational financial metrics, is outrageous and offers little to no return on investment. It's hard for a variety of reasons. Engineers disagree on the correct fix: Each one has a different perspective. Who's right? Sticker shock causes managers like me to approve multiple Band-Aid solutions instead of more complete fixes. Simultaneously, more critical projects—like replacing broken water pipes and fixing leaky roofs—may be competing for the pool of money we'd use. As a result, we find ourselves limping along, trying to make it another year, rather than spending the $250,000 to $500,000 it would take to make everyone comfortable and save some (but not all that much) energy.

But wait: We're a motivated company with a track record that, if we say so ourselves, puts us at the forefront of the sustainability movement. And yet we're having trouble fixing just one of our 250 existing buildings. How is the world, which operates on a fixed setting of "business as usual," going to deal with this overwhelming challenge?

The short story is that it isn't going to happen—we aren't going to solve the challenge of existing buildings and, consequently, the climate problem—without a comprehensive national program to finance the work. We need such a program—cobbled together through government, nonprofit, and foundation funding and called, say, Priming the Pump for Buildings—because right now only the most ethical and motivated individuals and companies are doing anything, and the vast majority of building owners are sitting on their hands. We need a program that literally pays for a portion of these retrofits, donating cash so that the return on investment becomes acceptable, or at least so the price of the fix isn't prohibitive.

This program has to happen soon—almost instantly. When I say that scientists are telling us we have a decade to replace the inefficient infrastructure that is hobbling our climate, they are speaking in part about our buildings—about the building you're sitting in right now. More practically, I'm worried that our finance department is going to quit en masse if we don't do something, and fast.

In fact, progressive governments and foundations are already moving in this direction. Cambridge, Massachusetts, thanks to a grant and leadership from the Kendall Foundation (a remarkable organization that has creatively taken on climate change as a jihad), started a program to finance just such efficiency work in buildings. And Berkeley, California, now loans homeowners money to install solar panels. Homeowners pay the loan back over twenty years through an almost unnoticeable property tax increase, and the city makes a modest profit.

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable energy is energy that is generated from sunlight, rain, tides, geothermal heat and wind. These sources are naturally and constantly replenished, which is why they are deemed as renewable. The usage of renewable energy sources is very important when considering the sustainability of the existing energy usage of the world. While there is currently an abundance of non-renewable energy sources, such as nuclear fuels, these energy sources are depleting. In addition to being a non-renewable supply, the non-renewable energy sources release emissions into the air, which has an adverse effect on the environment.

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