The Green New Deal & Building Retrofits

The Green New Deal advocates retrofitting 100% of the country’s buildings over the next 10 years to net zero energy. This goal is purposeless, wasteful and unnecessary. We need to pay attention to the “80/20 Rule” - 20% of the buildings are generating 80% of energy use; our focus should be on them. The average commercial building is small, with a median size of about 5,000 sq.ft. (average size is about 16,000 sq.ft.)** - there’s not a lot you can do to such buildings (think of all the Starbucks stores, restaurants, clothing stores, etc.), compared with what can be achieved by retrofitting schools, college and university buildings, hospitals and medical office buildings, shopping malls, grocery stores, government buildings, corporate buildings and commercial office buildings.

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There are about 5.8 million nonresidential buildings in the United States. If we assume that 800,000 are not occupied or will be torn down in the next 10-15 years, that leaves 5.0 million that we might be concerned about. If we apply the 80/20 rule, that means we should be thinking about retrofitting about 1 million buildings over the next 10 years, per the GND, or 100,000 per year.

California is about 12% of the country’s population. That means California should be looking to retrofit 12,000 buildings per year for the next decade. When you break it down that way, it doesn’t sound too daunting, does it?

How to find those buildings? Use modern technology. Drones with infrared cameras can spot the most egregious energy wasters, GPS systems can plot them, and software such as FirstFuel can specify a menu of upgrades and price them for contractor bid, all without ever visiting the building. All we have to do is work out the local institutional, permitting, and financial issues.

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Instead of trying putting electric and gas utilities out of business with schemes like Community Choice Aggregation (just endorsed by the San Diego City Council), why don’t we task them (via state public utility or public service commissions) with leading this process? They already have the customer information, all the energy use data, and in many states, about 30 years of experience in mandated energy efficiency programs.

Money to accomplish the task is not the issue. As a society, we are awash in capital. With a 5 percent return on investment, you can do just about every energy efficiency upgrade that has a payback of 10 years or less. You can also buy solar and wind power at the same cost as commercial electricity, so we could easily make just about every nonresidential building “net zero.”

Plenty of jobs would be created, but most of the upgrades could be accomplished by the type of skilled technician that we regularly graduate from community colleges.

In advocating for “net zero” energy retrofits over the next decade, the Green New Deal is spot on! We don’t need to tackle ALL of the buildings to get MOST of the desired results.

** https://www.eia.gov/consumption/commercial/reports/2012/buildstock/, accessed 12 March 2019.