I’ve been what we now call a ‘Green Builder’ since the 1980s. In 1987, I was a manager for a builder that could almost be qualified for Passive House certification, now becoming the standard for new buildings.
In 2003, I attended my first Greenbuild®, the trade show of the US Green Building Council (USGBC). While there, I realized that I already knew more about residential green buildings than most of the people there. My wife, Annie Prince, and I started a networking group that called the Lehigh Valley Green Builders Forum, and I began giving talks about Green Buildings using a USGBC presentation.
In 2007, as I researched the first talk I wrote, I realized how important it is to improve the efficiency of all buildings if we are going to make an impact on climate change. Buildings account for 40% of our energy use, and 80–90% of our buildings are old and inefficient. If we can improve those older buildings, we can make a big reduction in our emissions. As a contractor, I have seen energy reductions of as much as 80% through insulation, air sealing, and window replacement.
As a society, we have damaged our environment by emitting huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), a major cause of climate change. Besides raising global temperatures, the elevated levels of CO2 also cause the oceans to absorb more CO2, creating carbonic acid, which is slowly acidifying our oceans. Higher acidity eats away the shells of calcium carbonate shelled organisms which includes many types of plankton — the source of over half of earth’s oxygen. It is critical for us all to reduce emissions of CO2 to stop the acidification of the oceans.
In order to reverse the impacts of climate change, we must change how we acquire and use energy.
Currently, our country subsidizes fossil fuels and electricity production by about 10 billion dollars per year. We need to eliminate these subsidies and use that money to finance energy efficiency and renewable-energy projects. There are some important tools available to use to accomplish this, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has given us some incentives to take action.
We waste a lot of energy, and all buildings need a complete and thorough energy audit — and all the items identified in the audit need to be addressed. In my own house, I have saved 20% on heating and cooling costs by air sealing and insulating our basement. Besides saving energy, our whole house is now more comfortable because of this investment. My next action is to replace all our old, leaky recessed lights with new air tight LED lights. Then, we will seal air leaks in our ceiling and add insulation. With these additions, we will reduce our energy use by 60–70%.
Even in the most efficient building, air infiltration is the biggest source of energy loss. One of my energy auditors says that the houses he tests have 6–10 air changes an hour, while a tight house has one or even less. Improving energy efficiency can be expensive, so finding a way to pay for these improvements is important.
The Obama Administration adopted Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy Financing (C PACE) as a financial tool that allows a commercial building owner to finance enhancements that decrease the carbon footprint of the building. C PACE is only assessed against the property, not the business, so it does not affect the borrowing power of the business or the business’s profit and loss statement.
We can upgrade lighting and the heating and cooling systems of the building to improve efficiency. While the 2005 Energy Bill allowed $1.80 per square foot for efficiency improvements, the IRA now allows $5.00 per square foot for these improvements. C PACE can finance energy storage, backup power, renewable energy, and electric vehicle charging, and the financing is paid for by the savings in energy costs. We can generally reduce energy usage of a commercial building by 50% or more and improve the resilience of the building and the business at the same time. There are also local power company incentives to help pay for these improvements.
For residential buildings, efficiency can be improved and renewable energy can be added. The tax incentives for these improvements have also been enhanced by the IRA, and your local power company also has residential incentives to help, including rebates for energy audits, high-performance heat pumps, and heat pump water heaters. A local lender, the National Energy Improvement Fund, (NEIF) helps homeowners finance these costs. A less expensive financing option is to use an equity loan. Your retirement savings can also be used as collateral for a lower interest loan to finance these improvements.
We need to reverse climate change, so it’s time to get moving: the momentum of our world is slow to change, so we need to treat this with the utmost urgency!
Bruce Wilson LEED AP, has been an educator on green building and climate change since 2004 and the Valley’s oldest Green Builder, celebrating 46 years in business.
- SLV 2023 Table of Contents
- Voices of the Valley – Alphabetic List of Authors
- Sustainable Lehigh Valley booklet