Residential and commercial buildings consume over one-third of all energy and two-thirds of all electricity consumption in the U.S. Building techniques and materials exist that can dramatically reduce building energy consumption. (See Center for Health and Healing at right with a 61 percent projected energy savings). For example, simply orienting windows to capture the sun’s warmth during the winter and the use of appropriate overhangs to keep out the hot summer sun can reduce heating and cooling costs by half or more.
Unfortunately, most buildings do not take advantage of the significant energy savings available. Because buildings have life spans of 50 to 100 years or more, their poor efficiency has a long-lasting effect on energy needs.
While some states such as California have mandated efficiency standards for new buildings, there is no federal program that mandates efficient building practices for the private sector. In contrast, almost all of Europe has minimum building efficiency standards. There are, however, federal regulations which require federal buildings to comply with efficiency standards.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system is the most widely used energy efficient building standard. Buildings are awarded points based on areas such as water efficiency, energy efficiency, renewable materials, and indoor environmental air quality. Buildings which are LEED certified, then, offer more than energy efficiency, they also conserve water and other natural resources and provide a healthy space for occupants.
Building efficiency reduces the pollutants and greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere from electricity generation and other fossil fuel use. A study done in 2004 found that the costs of constructing energy efficient buildings were the same or only 2 percent more expensive to construct then their “business as usual” counterparts. This marginal increase in cost was recovered by the builders through faster sales and premiums. The owners of the buildings save many times over the increased costs through lower energy bills. Still, construction of energy efficient buildings is hindered by lack of regulations, inexperience of developers, and the fact that developers have to pay the up front cost, while it is the buyers who realize the significant savings. To address this issue, the federal and some state and local governments offer tax credits and other incentives to help offset increased capital costs.
The Energy Information Administration estimates that building energy usage could decline by 20 percent by 2025 if energy efficiency measures are adopted. Out of a toolbox of technologies that can make the U.S. more energy secure and reduce carbon emissions, building efficiency alone has the potential to save owners billions of dollars in energy costs each year.