Here’s an interesting way to look at energy use by U.S. buildings, courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Institute: Existing buildings in the United States account for 72 percent of our electricity use, which is more electricity than any country in the world (except for China and, of course, the United States) uses in total.
For all of us concerned about climate change, that number offers some good news. It’s getting easier and easier to cut energy use in existing commercial and institutional buildings, and a growing number of organizations are doing that. In some cases, deep retrofit strategies are being used to make significant cuts in energy consumption. And a variety of external factors, from market forces to local laws to new sources of funding, are nudging existing buildings toward energy efficiency.
There’s also progress on the next generation of buildings. For example, the idea of net-zero energy buildings is catching on. According to the New Buildings Institute, there are 33 verified net-zero energy projects in the United States, and another 127 that are not yet verified, up from 12 and 39 in 2012.
So what’s the bad news? We’re moving too slowly. That’s the conclusion of a new report by the U.N. climate change panel. The longer we wait, the more serious the problems caused by climate change will be, and the harder and more expensive it will be to address them. We’re in a pay-me-now or pay-me-later situation, except we are already starting to pay the “later” costs — for example, preparing buildings for the growing risk of weather-related disasters.
Of course, making buildings more energy-efficient won’t by itself be enough to address the problem of climate change. No single measure will be. That makes it all the more important to take all the steps that we can, as soon as we can.