Wrapping up the “Future of Buildings and the Grid” live chat

For 35 years, brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi have been doing Car Talk. With their Boston accents and penchant for self-deprecating humor, they’ve become a staple on National Public Radio.

Some of my colleagues, perhaps dreaming of NPR fame, think that a “Buildings Talk” would attract a lot of listeners. As Americans, we spend over 87 percent of our time inside buildings. We get attached to certain spaces, whether it’s our home, a museum, an office, or a church. Buildings also have plenty of problems. They leak, they can be drafty, mechanical systems break, and they can cost a lot to operate. Many people want to make them better and seek advice from experts.

We did a live web chat last week, “The Future of Buildings and the Grid,” and received a lot of questions about efficiency technologies in buildings, which ones are worth paying for today, and what new technologies are most promising.

When it comes to building efficiency, everyone wants to know what to do and what technologies will have the best value. Estimating how much energy a building can save is not easy. Every building is unique. They have different ages, different uses, different equipment, and different climates. As a rule of thumb though, the largest opportunities are in lighting, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), insulation, and plug loads. Existing technologies can reduce how much buildings cost to operate affordably. However, it’s also fun to talk about exciting emerging technologies. In a poll during our live chat, participants identified electrochromic windows, which adjust their level of glazing depending on how sunny it is outside, as the most exciting new technology.

Participants also wanted to know more about how building efficiency provides benefits beyond reducing energy costs. Making buildings more efficient can make users happier, healthier, and more productive. At RMI, as part of our RetroFit Initiative, we are working to make sure that these benefits are better understood and more widely recognized. Our chat participants recognized productivity as the most important non-energy benefit for energy efficiency, and for good reasons. When combined, energy efficient lighting, indoor air quality, acoustic, and thermal strategies can drive productivity increases of 3 percent–5 percent—theoretically repaying the initial efficiency investment and dwarfing the saved energy costs. Indeed, increasing a typical U.S. office’s labor productivity by just 0.7 percent would have the same bottom-line effect as eliminating the entire energy bill.

While it’s exciting to discuss the opportunities in individual buildings, it is also important to understand the implications of increasing the energy efficiency of buildings in the big picture. Efficient buildings won’t just use far less energy, freeing up electricity for electrified autos, and natural gas for industry and flexible power production; they’re also the key to supplying more, better, cheaper, safer energy to all sectors. Buildings are a future hub of energy storage, energy production, and energy markets. Intelligent buildings can make and perhaps store electricity. Thus efficient buildings can become the foundation of the vastly different U.S. energy system that’s starting to be built.

Participating in the live chat was great! Victor Olgyay and I got to tell others a little bit about what we think and got to listen to others about their views on what’s happening in the buildings sector. We received many great questions and we got to learn a lot from the participants. This was really fun!

Replay the live chat.