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A new paradigm for energy efficiency

By STEPHEN STUART
Posted 1/15/20

Energy-efficiency programs, as we know them today, have been seen as part of the solution toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The energy savings have been translated into financial savings for …

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A new paradigm for energy efficiency

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Energy-efficiency programs, as we know them today, have been seen as part of the solution toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The energy savings have been translated into financial savings for a homeowners’ investment in simple building envelope and mechanical system improvements and those savings pencil out over a 20-year period.

Unfortunately, the opposite has occurred. The measures used for energy efficiency have not been prime movers to significant greenhouse gas reduction and the projected financial savings have not been fully realized. Furthermore, the metrics used to determine cost effectiveness have kept these programs unaffordable for those who need them the most: low- and moderate-income households of all ages.

Energy-efficiency programs are based on electric and gas companies’ desire to avoid the costs of developing new generation and transmission infrastructure to meet growing energy demand. They aim for the minimal amount of work they can do to meet specific energy-reduction targets while maintaining their status quo relative to generated revenue.

There are two problems associated with this approach.

First, the programs are based on incremental change: that is, doing just enough relative to meeting a short-term goal of energy savings.

Second, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is not seen as having economic value.

Incremental change does not meet any significant goal. The incremental change in energy efficiency is just a recipe to maintain that status quo. Additionally, no attention is paid to real greenhouse-gas-reduction goals. Universal human health needs, such as access to safe, affordable, healthy housing and better health outcomes for those most likely to suffer the effects of inadequate housing, are not considered or valued in assessing the cost effectiveness of an energy-efficiency project. These are real needs that can be successfully addressed through appropriate, robust energy-efficiency programs.

How do we change this?

We must find new metrics and tools—new ways of measuring the benefits of home energy-efficiency projects. Those measures must be based on improvements in health outcomes; processes that actually create safe, warm, dry, healthy homes; and actions that can bring transformative change to people’s lives.  

We have to define measures that truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from what tools we use to heat and cool our homes. We also have to develop programs that are profound in their ability to bring our existing buildings beyond the next generation of energy efficiency, air sealing and thermal comfort. A monetary value has to be assigned as a benefit to greenhouse gas reduction.

To gain significant greenhouse gas reductions, we have to design a well thought out envelope for our buildings. An envelope is what we put our living space into; liken the envelope to how we dress ourselves. We wrap our body in clothes so that we can comfortably and safely regulate our core body temperature. In the rain and snow, we protect those clothes with a barrier that keeps us dry, prevents the wind from penetrating our insulative clothing, protects our core body temperature and allows our perspiration to escape so that we stay dry, warm or cool, depending on the season.

Building this type of “raincoat” for our homes needs to become business as usual. As building science continues to perfect this type of enclosure for our buildings, it becomes a cost-effective tool to improve our building stock.

This is the first step in truly managing significant reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions from our built environment. This allows us to fully utilize the cost savings of cold-climate air-source heat pumps to heat and cool our homes. We will be able to make meaningful changes toward creating healthy indoor-air quality. We will eliminate issues with mold created by moisture that becomes trapped in the walls.

In doing this, we will start to control the environmental conditions that have been shown to contribute to asthma and heart disease. We will mitigate poor air quality associated with the use of building materials that emit gas, harmful pollutants and the byproducts of fossil-fuel combustion.

When better health outcomes and the related reduction of healthcare costs are factored into how we value the return on investing in energy-efficiency programs, we see tremendous value. Significant societal savings from reductions in both Medicare and out-of-pocket costs—avoided trips to the emergency room due to reduced incidents of asthma attacks, heart disease, breathing difficulties, among many others—are outcomes which we need to value.

We will accomplish this by creating public programs that support robust energy retrofits, including a robust thermal envelope that manages moisture and allows for a high-quality indoor environment. By doing this, we are opening a path for better health outcomes. Studies have proven that when we provide the pathway to better health outcomes, we have fewer dollars spent on ER visits. This translates into more dollars available to pay the rent or mortgage and to buy better food.

We can accomplish greenhouse gas reduction, and better lives for us all when we change the paradigm of how we measure return on investment. Let’s all make it so.

Stephen Stuart, of Narrowsburg, NY, uses his experience in sustainable building materials and practices, renewable energy technologies, emergency management and building codes to champion a holistic approach to climate action that builds a sustainable economy and improved quality of life.

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