Disruption may be required for an energy efficient future

Sean Penrith is the executive director of the Earth Advantage Institute.

Sean Penrith is the executive director of the Earth Advantage Institute. 

Several hundred of us were packed into Merrill Hall at the Asilomar conference center in Pacific Grove, Calif. as Jane Long, chair of California's Energy Future Project, concluded her talk.

It was Sunday evening and the kick-off of the 17th biennial Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy hosts this popular event and this year's theme was "Fueling Our Future with Efficiency".

Jane mapped out California's quest to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. One of the key actions of the summary report she cited was to increase energy efficiency in buildings. She said new buildings would "need to be constructed to higher energy standards beginning in 2015, while existing buildings would need to be retrofitted (or replaced) to yield an overall efficiency gain of 40 percent in the buildings sector."

As the applause died down in the hall, a man stepped up to the microphone. He thanked Jane for recognizing the pivotal role that energy efficiency in buildings played. He also pointed out that legislators generally recognize the huge gains — energy security, reduction of fossil fuel dependence, mitigation of greenhouse gases, etc. — that building energy efficiency offers. He asked how Jane thought it could be achieved?

I, for one, was not prepared for this simple, hard-hitting question. This gentleman leads a firm that has been actively involved in energy efficiency for almost two decades. If he didn't know how, who did? He spoke the truth of course. The somber 4th Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stacked up energy supply, transport, industry, agriculture, forestry, waste and buildings. The report concluded that buildings offer the largest low-cost potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

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