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How Green Retrofits Could Save the World

By Amy Westervelt

Sep 10, 2009

Retrofitting existing buildings to make them more energy efficient is by far the most effective way to dramatically reduce the CO2 emissions associated with the built environment.

Over 90% of buildings in the U.S. are over five years old and inefficient enough that they could not be built under current energy requirements, according to a of U.S. building stock by Lawrence Berkeley Labs. That's a huge opportunity for retrofits. In fact, says Gary Lawrence, urban strategies leader for international engineering and planning firm ,

“There’s no way the U.S. can meet its CO2 reduction goals without retrofits to address energy use and water efficiency.” Of course, that's also “a huge unfunded mandate for CO2 and climate change.”

So, what’s the hold up?

Well, the “unfunded” bit is a big part of it.

In its 2009 report, Living Cities (a collaborative of 21 of the world's largest financial institutions) reported that many cities cited funding as their number-one challenge when it comes to large-scale green building programs.

Even well-funded programs may not be enough. According to George S. Hawkins, director of the Department of the Environment in Washington, D.C., “even with $25 million for retrofits, it is not anywhere near enough, given the scale of development that is already here, which is not energy efficient, and which needs to be transformed.”

Retrofitting isn’t simple, either.

“It’s just easier to deal with new buildings—they aren’t occupied yet, you don’t have to worry about moving tenants out around retrofits and compensating them for their inconvenience, and you don’t have to worry about auditing where they’re at now and mandating where they need to be,” explains Laura Tam, green building policy director for the . “It’s also a matter of cost—it actually costs more to do a green retrofit on an existing building than to build a new building green.”

Some new financing strategies are beginning to emerge. multi-million dollar program to retrofit existing city buildings, for example, is financed through its public utility, which is lending the city the money to make buildings more efficient. The city will then pay that money back with the energy savings it realizes over time.

But the reach of such a program is modest for now. LA is starting with 20 buildings – out of more than 1,000 existing city-owned structures.

Carbon Cap + Smart Grid = Financing for Green Retrofits

Fortunately, things are beginning to slot in place for green retrofits.

First, a federal carbon emissions cap could help make it necessary (not to mention more financially attractive) for building owners to reduce emissions in any way possible. According to a 2007 , four of the five most cost effective ways to cut emissions are building retrofit measures: insulation, lighting, air-conditioning and water heating.

Second, the build-out of the smart grid could help make the case for green retrofits.

A viable retrofitting financing model has already emerged for larger buildings in the form of Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) for larger, institutional and corporate customers. ESCOs sell performance contracts wherein the company that conducts the retrofit charges a lower up-front cost but shares in the financial benefits created by an energy efficient retrofit. As the smart grid is built and buildings begin to include more meters, sensors and building automation systems, those financial benefits will be easier to calculate and predict.


I agree with you Dan, i have already read this document and its truly depict the face of reality and what you have mentioned here is also worth while, all we need to focus on is maintaining the same pace reducing the emission by retrofitting existing vehicles.


These are a great way to get free retrofits. See my The ESCO Blog for more background.

The term "green" is on

The term "green" is on everyone's minds these days, whether it's getting more green as in making more money, or going green environmentally. The need for more green technology and practices is definitive, as the impact on our environment from our appetites for fossil fuel machinery and methods of generation electricity have taken a toll. An effort does have to be made to repair our planet, but many consider the loss of amenities to be too great to surmount. However, there are ways of getting by: solar water heating devices, electric high speed trains getting installed for public transport, and so forth. If you start going a little more green, it's like giving a cash advance to the Earth.

Local Governments Are the Key

Local governments play a key role in the quiet revolution of green retrofits. Couple things to add to what you've written: Revolving energy loan funds are an innovative mechanism for local governments to help homeowners and businesses pay for energy efficiency improvements or clean energy installations, and they're beginning to catch on.

Berkeley, CA, has definitely been a leader in local clean energy financing, and an inspiration to other local governments. However, there are a handful of other innovators, and this summer ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA held a popular webinar series on innovative energy financing programs that featured local government staff talking about how their programs worked, the challenges to implementation, and how their programs can be replicated. You can view the recorded versions of these webinars here:

The webinar series included these topics and local government innovators (all of which are ICLEI members):

--Babylon, NY's Long Island Green Homes initiative, which allows residents to finance energy-saving home improvements with a benefit assessment on their home.

--Cambridge, MA's Cambridge Energy Alliance

--Berkeley, CA's BerkeleyFIRST program

--Boulder County, CO's ClimateSmart Loan Program

--Setting Up a City-Scale Retrofit Program

--Sonoma County, CA's Energy Independence Program

Vehicles are already being retrofit

We are reducing vehicle emissions by retrofitting existing vehicles to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, an otherwise stock, seven-year old Honda Civic LX (non-hybrid) produces zero HCs and zero CO at 25mph. It's NOx is also extremely low.

You can see a California smog test report of the vehicle here:


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