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Energy Solutions

Green Building Priority #1 – Reduce Energy Use

Number-one on my top-10 list of green building priorities is to reduce our consumption of energy.

Air pollution over Denver. Most of this pollution is from fossil fuel combustion.
Image Credit: Warren Gretz, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Energy consumption carries with it numerous environment impacts. Most importantly, burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, to oil) to heat homes or generate electricity emits the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which is the leading cause of global climate change. Debate about whether climate change is real has long since ended in most scientific circles and is now relegated to the radical blogosphere and pseudo news outlets. The vast preponderance of evidence supports the contention that greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere are trapping heat and warming the globe. Indeed, 2010 is on track to be the warmest year since global temperatures have been monitored.

Beyond the concern of climate change, the extraction, refining, and transport of fossil fuels are responsible for many other impacts. The BP spill in the Gulf this year illustrated the risks associated with going to ever-greater depths to drill for oil. It is frightening to realize that however great the volume of oil released into the Gulf by that failed wellhead (4.9 million barrels), almost as much spills into the world’s oceans every year from oil tankers and wellhead leaks (4.7 million barrels).

In Nigeria, which is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the United States, there are an average of 300 oil spills per year, most of them generating little if any attention. Indeed, parts of the Niger Delta have become veritable oil lagoons, devoid of life. As the world’s largest consumer of oil, we in the United States bear significant responsibility for this environmental damage.

Here in North America, development of the Athabascan oil sands in Alberta, Canada, is not only devastating vast swaths of northern forest, but also dramatically increasing the “global warming intensity” of that oil consumption. In other words, due to the energy intensity of extraction and processing, a gallon of Athabascan oil has higher global warming potential than a gallon of oil that is pumped out of the ground. Canada is currently the largest exporter of oil to the U.S., and about one million gallons per day of that comes from the Athabascan oil sands.

To feed our nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants, we’re removing mountaintops in West Virginia, wreaking environmental destruction on an untold scale in those areas. Our coal-fired power plants, with a peak capacity of about 335,00 megawatts (MW), generate 48.5% of all U.S. electricity — so when we reduce our consumption of electricity, we help to reduce the impacts associated with coal extraction and combustion.

Along with carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, there are direct air pollution emissions as well. We’ve cleaned up power plants a lot, but they are still a leading source of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulates.

Beyond environmental impacts of our energy consumption are the military costs of ensuring access to Middle Eastern oil, and the terrorism risks posed by our power generation and energy distribution systems. Oil and natural gas pipelines, refineries, power plants, and electricity distribution lines present significant vulnerability to terrorists who want to inflict economic damage to America. As I argued in an Environmental Building News editorial, I believe the Achilles heal of nuclear power isn’t accidental spills or even long-term waste storage, but rather the risk of terrorism.

The bottom line is that conventional energy sources carry significant environmental burdens, hidden economic costs, and looming terrorism risks. Thus, I believe the number-one priority in green building is to reduce energy consumption.

How we do that is the subject of this ongoing Energy Solutions blog. Opportunities range from building highly insulated homes, to installing more efficient fluorescent and LED lighting, operating our homes and appliances for maximum efficiency, conserving water (which saves energy), using renewable energy systems to reduce our need for conventional fuels and electricity, and driving our cars less.

The great thing about using less energy is that you get paid for doing it. Most of the measures to reduce energy use pay for themselves–some very quickly. You get rewarded financially and you can feel good about doing the right thing for the environment.

To summarize, here’s my top-10 list of green building priorities:

#1. Reduce energy use

#2. Reduce water use

#3. Ensure a healthy indoor environment

#4. Reduce the need for driving

#5. Build smaller and optimize materials use

#6. Ensure durability and reuse existing buildings

#7. Protect and restore the site

#8. Use green materials

#9. Create resilient, climate-adapted buildings

#10. Make it easy for homeowners to be green

In addition to this Energy Solutions blog, Alex contributes to the weekly blog BuildingGreen Product of the Week, which profiles an interesting new green building product each week. You can sign up to receive notices of these blogs by e-mail–enter your e-mail address in the upper right corner of any blog page.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. b | | #1

    i enjoyed this post but one
    i enjoyed this post but one large oversight appears to be that most of the discussions revolves around residential/personal changes. Don't get me wrong, these are all spot on. I just wish we could have more discussion about the larger issue/challenge, which is providing energy for the consumers, e.g. industrial, commercial, and military consumers who actually consume more than residential consumers. I think solar, wind, etc are more obvious options for residential usage but when you begin to propose replacing coal and nuclear, the two current heavy hitters, it becomes much more challenging. I'd like to see more effort on tackling this issue. I also think that if we do that, the residential issues get resolved as well. Conservation ought to be a given but sadly our demand will continue to increase so conservation cannot be relied upon to actually replace say nuclear for instance.

    anyway, just some food for thought. great blog!

  2. Lucas Durand | | #2

    Thanks again for contributing an excellent blog report. This website is dedicated to the furthering of “green” building, yet I have found that there is often a reluctance to discuss in detail the reasons why we bother to build this way.
    The “why” of green building is important.
    Efficiency for efficiency's sake or healthy indoor environments are important “whys” in their own regard but the reality of our world is that we will need green building as an adaptive tool to help humanity survive the adversity we are creating for ourselves. In my opinion there is no bigger “why” than that. So thanks again Alex for laying down a good dose of “why” for the visitors of this site.

  3. Lucas Durand | | #3

    One more thing...
    In your blog you wrote:

    The bottom line is that conventional energy sources carry significant environmental burdens, hidden economic costs, and looming terrorism risks.

    While I agree with this statement overall, I'd like to point out that sources of energy that have until now been left untouched for reasons of cost are usually refered to as "unconventional". Examples are tar sands, shale oil, shale gas, deep water oil, etc.
    There are also liquid fuels that are sometimes refered to as unconventional because they must be manufactured from other forms of energy. Examples are coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids, biomass-to-liquids (biofuels).
    It is important to realize that the extraction of unconventional energy sources carries a higher capital cost for technology and infrastructure, does more damage to the environment and provides a smaller EROEI (net energy return) than extraction of conventional energy sources.
    For these reasons, and unfortunatley for the planet, expect to see coal making a big come-back soon.
    We are just entering a new era where we will have less and less total energy to use and we will have to pay an ever increasing amount - in every respect - for what energy we will have.
    If this isn't incentive to build with efficiency in mind, I don't know what is.

  4. A dog in a pony show | | #4

    Lucas the pessimist
    Are you clueless to all the advances taking place in science? and business?

    For one example... there is starting to be a huge glut of solar panels ... to the point that I wouldn't be surprised to see them in my Trix cereal boxes soon.

    What happens if all homes go solar including vehicles? The price of fossil fuel will go back to $10 a barrel, that's what. And as to a warmer planet... buy upland soon to be ocean front and be the smartest person in town.

    There is something good about all change.... change is good. We don't need to go back to the cave or live like Riversong taking our one washcloth bath a week.

    Well, you can, I am not.

    Green is a cool topic....if yaa really wanna scare people... scare everyone into not having kids. That is the best way to give this planet back to the other living things. ... get us off the planet.

    Only humans lay asphalt...

    Only one way to a truly green planet. we get off it.... if that's what you truly want Lucas.

    So Lucas... be my guest and lead the way if you wish too.... I may follow... or ;... may not.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to A Dog
    A Dog,
    Vehicles are not going to "go solar" -- at least if you mean powered by PV arrays attached to the vehicle -- any time soon. You need an order-of-magnitude increase in area for PV than is available on a vehicle for useful propulsion.

  6. A dog in a pony show | | #6

    of course i mean solar via batteries or whatever transferred to said vehicles... In my own doggy dog world I could go completely solar if the price is right and use no dinosaur juice to run things... still would be complicit in that what I buy would be made still with the stuff... but industry is rapidly working on becoming more green... read all the fun stuff that may come on the Smart PLanet emails... etc...

    and Moore's law... it is real and is making a difference in the dog and pony show...

    the dog

  7. Steve El | | #7

    That's all definitely headed
    That's all definitely headed the right direction. I'd just like to add that none of the 10 steps matter a whit if we don't stop (a) population growth and (b) continue to demand never ending economic growth. We have no earthly examples of anything that can just keep doubling in size forever, and that includes our population and the economy.

  8. a no nothing punk | | #8

    take the pledge and get real
    Steve... you agree as to population... get your kids to agree and have themselves fixed.... and your nephews and nieces....0-2 kids and time to cut tubes.

    That is living green without all the sky is falling hoopla.

    Alex, great post even if you skirted population growth and Moore's Law which will end up doing most of the work to get this planet through to the next century with a fair number of healthy happy humans, plants, and animals...

    Oh and bees and bats!

    A no good green techy punk

  9. Lucas Durand | | #9

    More of a realist...

    Are you clueless to all the advances taking place in science? and business

    No, I have read the publicity from companies like Nanosolar as well. I know PV for pennies may be a reality at some point.

    For one example... there is starting to be a huge glut of solar panels ... to the point that I wouldn't be surprised to see them in my Trix cereal boxes soon.

    If there is a glut it's not from over-production but because people can't afford them. In case you haven't noticed, unemployment is up at the moment.

    What happens if all homes go solar including vehicles? The price of fossil fuel will go back to $10 a barrel, that's what.

    Once again your reasoning is based on assumption and fallacy.
    1. If renewables like PV are to become widely used they must be cheap and people must buy them. For either to happen a healthy, productive economy must exist - despite energy shortfalls.
    2. Even if renewables do come to widespread use, collectively they will provide nowhere near the amount of energy that will be lost from declining fossil fuel production. The best renewables can do for us is slow the rate of energy descent.
    3. Your forecast that renewables will drive the cost of oil to $10/barrel ignores global demand. Economic growth in China, India (and perhaps most importantly) OPEC member nations will ensure that there is demand enough to keep the price of oil inflated. Jeff Rubin said it best "What's the coolest thing to do in Dubai? Why, go skiing of course."

    As Steve El points out, never-ending growth is impossible. Some smart people figured this out in the 70s and published a book about it called "Limits to Growth". It's been almost forty years since that book was published and now we're bumping into those limits. I was listening to a radio interview with Jeremy Rifkin last night. He indicated a belief that possibly two of the most seminal events of human history just passed us by.
    The first was when, in July of 2008, oil hit $149/barrel and the global economy shut down (the global economy does not run on expensive energy). That was our first slap in the face that our bill has come due.
    The second was in Dec of 2009, when instead of taking what could have been humankind's last opportunity to avert the occurance of a climate change tipping point, the big players allowed the conference to disolve into meaninglessness.
    Mark my words AJ, we are all witness to events of great historical significance. Most of us however, have our attention focused on the wrong things. It's time to stop looking for PV panels in your cereal and start doing what you can to help your community transition to a "post-carbon" economy.

  10. J Chesnut | | #10

    Energy Efficiency should be priority #2
    If energy efficiency is 'green building' priority number 1 then green building is a standard better than the status quo but does not represent a solution to reversing environmental degradation nor reversing the extinction of other species via habitat destruction.
    If 'green building' is intended to be a restorative practice than green building priority number 1 should target how we can justify new projects. I'm not of the opinion that it is impossible to justify a new construction project, but according to this principle many of the 'green' residences I've contributed to might be better described as 'energy efficient' residences.

  11. a no nothing punk | | #11

    lucas.... punk or mr. punk please...
    Lucas... little example for yaa bro... Elm tree disease... no forests left... the sky is falling right?

    Nope, nada... elms replaced ... the death of elms was an opportunity Lucas.

    And yaa just don't have a clue as to the power of Moor's law.

    The world is becoming digital. The hardware is getting smaller to the point that it will take no dinosaur juice to energize it. Read more Smartplanet yap...

    All of your's and most people's thought process is based on today, yesterday and short line extensions of this recent data and with no regard to what effect near future changes will have on these lines and past trends! Much of our future will be a change from today and along with your problems will come solutions!

    Your way of thinking is absolutely steering you to your doom and gloom scenario.

    Punk's law is that Moor's law being exponential trumps the population growth line because the prediction of continuing exponential pop growth is already wrong and increasingly wrong as the days go by. One oops for me as I too am looking some existing data....

    The difference is that I am allowing myself to question popular lunatic thinking that for the millionth time is predicting the end of times.

    Must be the nearing of personal death that plants ones thinking in this manner....???

    A green punk ready to die living life large on the way...

  12. Lucas Durand | | #12

    Sigh. Response to AJ.
    AJ, there you go again making statements based on assumptions and not backing anything up with any kind of evidence.

    Must be the nearing of personal death that plants ones thinking in this manner....???

    Au contraire. I wasn't even born yet when "Limits to Growth" was first published and I'm in the best shape of my life having spent the summer working outdoors, swinging my framing hammer and barn raising. Thanks for inquiring though.

    The difference is that I am allowing myself to question popular lunatic thinking that for the millionth time is predicting the end of times.

    In fact, I have never stated that the world will end. I don't believe that it will. I have pointed out that the world will change dramaticaly and I believe it is going to start changing soon, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I have also outlined some of the forces that will precipitate that change. If you don't think that dramatic change can happen of forces we created that are outside our control, go talk to people living in the UK and Europe that are living in what they call "the age of austerity". Heck, you don't even need to go that far. Go down to Main St. in small town USA and talk to them.

    You criticize me and my point of view despite the fact that you are unable to bring anything to the discussion other than an expression of blind faith that Moore's Law will somehow transport us all to some eutopian existance. Forgive me if I don't sign up and if I am a pessimist then here are some other pessimists with a similar point of view:
    Dr James Schlesinger, former Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy and Director of the CIA: (~11 mins a little slow, but with interesting insights.)

    Jeff Rubin, Author and former Chief Economist CIBC World Markets: (~25 mins a bit long winded, but a complex subject and I think a very well articulated point of view.)

    The U.S. Military Establishment (Joint Forces Command): (I recommend the review, the original report is quite long and dry.)

    The German Military Establishment (Bundeswehr): (The original report is linked in this review but is in German.)

    U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency:

    The International Energy Agency:

    These last two (the EIA and IEA) are interesting in that they have a history of toeing the line by producing very rosy politically correct outlooks. Suddenly, the most recent outlooks from both agencies not only acknowledge that peak oil is a problem (where previously there was only denial that it was even an issue) but that peak oil is a problem now and not in the distant future.

    Alex started his blog by saying:

    Debate about whether climate change is real has long since ended in most scientific circles and is now relegated to the radical blogosphere and pseudo news outlets.

    Which is true, yet recent polls show that only something like 35-40% of Americans believe that climate change is real.
    Similarily, the debate about whether peak energy issues are real has also ended but that debate never even really entered the public domain. Public awareness is almost zero yet it should be the biggest news story going.
    I don't post my opinions with the intent of scaring anybody, but if certain facts scare you I can't help that. I believe it is critically important for people to gain at least some understanding of what lies just over the horizon so that we aren't all caught standing around with our fingers in our noses.
    But hey, maybe I'm completely wrong. Maybe Gordon Moore himself will swoop in on a flying car from wherever he is and set everything straight, but until he does it's probably best to at least think about some of these other issues. History has shown that luck favours the prepared.

  13. Steve El | | #13

    A valorous and wonderful
    A valorous and wonderful response, Lucas.

  14. A dog in a pony show | | #14

    Lucas... your whole post proves my point.
    You fail mathematics 401 Lucas. Steve too.

    Look. All the ding dongs you are quoting favor your take on all... good for you.

    Now... let me help you with some learning. ... and if you have connnections... send this info up the chain to all of your quoted sources that just don't get what will be the real future.

    Take energy, double the demand per time and leave the new finds at a steady state. What happens over time? YOUR SCENARIO right? Right... I see all heads nodding... good.

    Now... this time... take over time this demand thing coming and going due to the shock on economies being too much too handle. Nodding again I hope. So... now what... well.. the idea guys that all want to be billionares and trillionares along with millions of research fanatics get jazzed up like they are all suddenly hitting crack pipes. Why.. Opportunity that's why! higher costs... open the door to financing to get there new products made and brought to market. Slight nodding???

    So... we now have in the pipeline computers and every stinkin thing you already know about and just as much you know not of coming out using less and less and LESS ENERGY!

    When everything we use energy for uses half the energy per being reduced in size every 18 months... you and I are in for a sea change that none of your quoted sources are accounting for.

    There is your flaw healthy hammer swinging man.

    Now do the math Lucas... before you post. too bro.

    And if you need to quote a doctoral paper to back up my thoughts here.. I will get right on it.

    Question for both of you... Why are you both sucking up to advisors here? Are you followers boys or leaders!!!???

    Do some independent thinking!

    love yaa both,

    The dog

  15. Lucas Durand | | #15

    Response to AJ

  16. Lucas Durand | | #16

    Response to Steve El
    Thank you Steve.

  17. Garth Sproule | | #17

    Place your bet on the fate of our children
    This is a quote from Thomas Homer Dixon in "Carbon Shift"
    "Which bet do we want to make? Do we bet that energy scarcity and climate change aren't going to hurt the world badly, and invest our resources elsewhere?
    If we're right, we save some money, but if we're wrong, the consequences for our children could be catastrophic.
    Or do we bet that energy scarcity and climate change could indeed hurt the world badly, and invest to prevent that outcome?
    If we're right, our children avoid possible catastophe, but if we're wrong, we lose some money."

    When put this way, the answer to most people, is obvious.

  18. Lucas Durand | | #18

    Hear, hear.
    Hear, hear.

  19. Moor's law professor | | #19

    garth... huge investments are being made now.
    As I keep saying, what you want to happen is happening.

    Science, research, innovation, technology, Moor's law, it's all pushing faster than population growth us all into a very livable now and future now.

    Yawn all you want Lucas as it is all happening through no help of yours bro.

    I am excited about all the opportunities both today and tomorrow.

  20. Steve El | | #20

    We save money in outcome #2 also
    To Garth Sproule, quoting Thomas Homer Dixon in "Carbon Shift":

    "Or do we bet that energy scarcity and climate change could indeed hurt the world badly, and invest to prevent that outcome? If we're right, our children avoid possible catastophe, but if we're wrong, we lose some money."

    I disagree that if we are wrong in that bet we would lose some money. Oh, in the short term sure. But in the long term so many positive side effects would take place that we simply couldn't go wrong. If I knew of a stock pick that was as likely to return as high of a return on a 50 year plan, I'd jump in with both feet, and encourage my friends and family too. The fact that we are not doing all these wonderful things for their own sake, and regardless of fossil fuel scarcity or climate change just buggers the mind.

    Steve El
    No man can claim that he is absolutely in the right or that particular thing is wrong
    because he thinks so. The claim to infallibility would thus always be a most dangerous
    claim to make. (M.K. Gandhi)

  21. Steve El | | #21

    Climate Change: Urgency vs Effective Outreach
    Psychologists look into obstacles and tools for communicating
    about climate change:

    G, are you seeing a buildup of
    greenhouse gases up there like
    we are here on earth?

  22. EK2HkGqvtw | | #22

    Nice post
    In reponse to b. I agree that the industrial, commercial consumers consume the most energy, but they are slower becoming greener over time. An example would be Wal-Mart converting 90% of their facilities with energy efficient white roof systems, with skylight after skylight.

    "The great thing about using energy is that you get paid while doing". This is true, unfortunately many people don't think about long term savings, and only consider initial costs. A great tool I would like to see used more often is life-time cycle analysis reports. These have not been out long (that I know of), but they can provide a good estimation of how much a consumer's would save over the entire life of an investment. Here is an example at If you scroll down to the first picture you can see an illustration of how it works. The most important thing about the chart, in my opinion is that it shows a monetary value that is saved. This could change consumers perception, if they could actually see the savings for themselves.

    In my opinion, many consumers will become more energy efficient once when they experience the savings first hand. I only wish the government would offer more rebates, especially here in the Southeastern United States.

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