Better Buildings Initiative Should be Win-Win for Business

As part of an effort to reduce US dependence on fossil fuels and power 80% of the economy with lower-carbon energy by 2035, President Barack Obama has proposed a “Better Buildings Initiative” to help businesses, schools, and hospitals save money and energy by designing their buildings more efficiently. If successful, and if it gains the necessary support from Congress, the Better Buildings Initiative would cut energy consumption for individual buildings 20% by 2020. By reducing energy bills, the program would help businesses be able to hire more people and weather hard times effectively.

Components of the new initiative include providing tax incentives for building efficiency work; grants for state and local governments that encourage them to incorporate energy efficiency into updated building codes; and loan programs to help businesses, schools, and other entities pay for building efficiency upgrades. At the same time President Obama has announced a Better Buildings Challenge, asking CEOs and university presidents to commit to make the buildings they oversee more efficient. This emphasis on encouraging the private sector to do its part underscores that the Better Buildings Initiative is partly about making the US competitive in the new energy economy, and that more efficient national infrastructure is good for business as well as the environment.

In 2010 commercial buildings alone consumed 20% of all energy demand, so making buildings more efficient is one of the easiest ways to cut back on carbon emissions and consumption of fossil fuels. Sometimes referred to as “the energy you don’t need to buy,” energy efficiency doesn’t come with most of the technical and sighting challenges associated with many renewable power projects. And finally, the less energy our buildings consume the easier it will be to meet the leftover demand with clean power sources.

While the president deserves praise for launching the Better Buildings Initiative, the program will need a certain amount of support from Congress to be successful. Obama has proposed funding better buildings in part by reducing subsidies to the oil industry, but any new funding program will need to be approved by Congress to become policy. With Republicans in control of the US House of Representatives, the question is whether enough conservative lawmakers will support the initiative. More efficient buildings should be a win-win for the economy and environment, partly for the reasons listed above. But lawmakers with close ties to the oil, coal, and gas industries may be reluctant to embrace it.

In the end programs like the Better Buildings Initiative are about helping schools and businesses through hard economic times, slashing carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels, and maintaining US competitiveness in the new energy economy. That ought to be something innovators and politicians of all party backgrounds can support.

Photo credit: Bill Ward