Ron's Ramblings

Are Energy-Efficient Buildings the Superheroes That Will Save Humanity?

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Climate change may well be the motivator that the human race needs to improve the energy-efficiency of buildings worldwide.

Can the human race save itself from itself?

That was the question on the table during a conversation with an engineer I had during the ASHRAE Winter Conference and Air Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition in Dallas recently.

We started out talking about all the advances in energy-efficiency technology over the past decade, and that led to the question of what it will take to make building owners and managers adopt them.

There are a number of forward-thinking building owners and managers who see the value in energy-efficiency retrofits for their properties, there are numerous green-building programs and certifications, the number of green buildings is growing, and regulations are also forcing the adoption of energy-efficiency measures.

Yet the vast majority of buildings in this country (and worldwide) still don’t perform anywhere near as well as they can or should from an energy-use standpoint. In fact, as reported recently in The New York Times  (http://nyti.ms/XNf0g8) a recent study  (http://on.nyc.gov/13hB5qo) of New York City’s largest buildings found many of them to be so energy-inefficient that, “The city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability estimates that if poor-performing buildings in the city improved their efficiency and reached just the median level of energy use in their categories, the city’s energy consumption would decline by at least 18 percent, and greenhouse-gas emissions would be cut by 24 percent.”

And that’s just asking poor-performing buildings to reach the median level of energy use in their categories!

Back in Dallas, the engineer was skeptical that we will see significant numbers of buildings reach their maximum energy-efficiency potential in our lifetimes. Inertia, he feels, is too powerful a force to overcome.

I’m not so sure. I think change can come dramatically when humans set their minds to it. And I think the impetus for that change will be another dramatic change that is upon us: climate change. I think climate change is happening, humans are at least partially responsible, and humans should be taking steps to mitigate it, if not reverse it.

Feel free to dip your pens (or keyboards) in poison ink if you like. In fact, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. There is certainly enough science out there to support whatever view you may hold. In my case, I believe the scientists who are warning us of impending climate change, and think that those who deny it do so at the risk of us all. And I’m not alone: The insurance industry is taking notice, too (http://bit.ly/YnkOwF), and when big money ($50 billion per year) starts to get involved . . . well, you know what they say about following the money.

Within the next 10 years—15 at the most—I think the evidence of our own senses will give us the undeniable proof we need to really move on the climate-change issue. We're already seeing consistently rising temperatures, massive heat waves, massive droughts, rises in ocean levels, and so on, which are all basically what the climate-change scientists warned us about. It’s unfortunate that it will take thousands of deaths and trillions of dollars in damage over the next decade to convince the deniers, but it’s likely they eventually will have no choice but to believe.

What will happen when we all get on the same page and begin to address what we need to do save ourselves? As I said, humans can be capable of remarkable accomplishments. Energy-efficiency measures will become commonplace. It will be much like indoor smoking bans: Although some people fought them, now that they’re in place it seems bizarre that we used to tolerate indoor smoking. In the near future, walking into an energy-inefficient building may spark the same wonder that walking into a smoke-filled restaurant does today.

Don’t believe we can change that fast? Just look at the lessons of the past. Look at the remarkable changes that took place in the world between 1939 and 1945. Would those have happened without the proper motivation? Probably not, and certainly not that quickly.

I just hope that by the time our motivation arrives this time around, the war isn’t already lost.

 

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Former Senior Editor Ron Rajecki’s take on the issues facing HVAC engineers.

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