Reaching the Building Efficiency Tipping Point

The evidence is overwhelmingly clear. Climate change is affecting us all in many ways and is on a trajectory to get worse in our lifetimes. None of us asked for this. But confronted with the choice of action or acquiescence, we must choose to act. RMI has chosen to act boldly to improve building energy efficiency.

Buildings are key, as they are both the cause of and the solution to an outsized percentage of U.S. energy use. Our 120 million buildings are responsible for 42 percent of U.S. primary energy use and 72 percent of our electricity use, more than any other sector. Buildings are the ultimate end users for 68 percent and 55 percent of our country’s coal and natural gas, respectively, and generated 47 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2009. We might not think of real estate as a dirty industry, but the numbers are damning, perhaps even motivating. If we can get our building stock to be twice as efficient, we can essentially eliminate our need for fossil fuels to power them.

Architects have long known that buildings are resource hogs. That knowledge has generated a rich history of climate-responsive design. We learned how to design with climate, and how to build superefficient net-zero-energy and even net-positive houses. Frank Lloyd Wright’s hemicycle house of 1943 is just one illustration of elegant energy-efficient design at the interface of engineering, architecture, and climatic knowledge.

Lack of technical knowledge is not the problem. What we need to solve the building resource issue is action. As a society, we need to scale up our efforts; more efficiency projects must be built, to the point of transforming the market. This is starting to happen. Individual actions are adding up, and are using the power of the market to ascend our building efficiency climate goals. When enough projects are under way we will reach the tipping point of cultural and market transformation, and energy efficiency in buildings will be the new normal.

By 2050, U.S. buildings have to use 50 percent less electricity than they do today. To get there we need building owners to see the value in broad and deep energy retrofits and to perform them across the commercial building stock—supported by a finance community eager to invest.

On the way to that goal, by 2025, RMI’s programs will result in a transformative shift in the way building owners and the financial industry view the building efficiency opportunity. We’ll make one billion square feet of commercial building space 35 percent more efficient, influence the deep energy retrofit (greater than 50 percent efficiency improvement) of billions more, and grow the buildings efficiency market from less than $10 billion per year to more than $25 billion.
Our roadmap to scale building efficiency does just that. We work with high-visibility clients and projects such as the Empire State Building, the International Monetary Fund, and AT&T, and show deep efficiency is feasible, desirable, and cost effective.

The biggest opportunities are often at the portfolio scale. We can have enormous impacts, with even more favorable economics. Portfolios of buildings at Arizona State University and with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service provide tangible examples of how to use market forces to scale efficiency broadly. We provide tools such as the RetroFit Depot to inform owners and service providers of the opportunities and drive demand. We focus on some of the largest levers of change—how to reduce investment risk, reduce building assessment costs, and extrapolate efficiency knowledge from one building to sets of buildings. We are working in communities, cities, and campuses to encourage large-scale energy retrofits.

Our Scaling Building Efficiency Program is targeting four of the largest, most influential segments of the buildings market—major corporations, the General Services Administration, the Department of Defense, and activist cities—for deep and portfolio-wide retrofits. It will also stimulate private capital investment in both broad and deep energy retrofits by getting owners and investors to better incorporate value and risk into their decision-making.

Our logic model pulls the most effective levers to create change. We focus on impacts, and let the impacts inform our actions. Working with the big portfolio owners noted above, we offer tools, training, and examples to stimulate demand, and help them purchase efficiency. Successful high-visibility projects generate increasing investment for building efficiency. Working with municipalities (such as the city of Chicago) and partnering with other effective, engaged nonprofits help all of our activities have more impact.

It’s an ambitious vision, and will be accomplished in partnership with many others. The stakes are high, and the imperative to act will only increase. The sooner we act, the lower the risks and cost. Our activities are focused and effective and bring us closer to transforming the building efficiency market. The tipping point is getting nearer. By aligning our actions and interests, we will reach this goal.

Buckminster Fuller once said, “The best way to predict the future is to design it.” Stand with us, to design the future we want, and the means to achieve it.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.