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Opinion

To drill or not to drill is not the question

Renewable resources abound. Let's use them.

By Michelle Moore / October 6, 2008



Washington

To drill or not to drill is the wrong question.

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Real solutions to the energy and climate crisis are available today if we focus on what we have in abundance instead of arguing over what's exhaustible and dwindling – namely fossil fuels.

Emphasizing efficiency and renewables, in that order, is already working in the building sector, which is demonstrating how we can change for the better by changing the way we think.

There are plenty of opportunities to meet energy demand through efficiency.

Buildings represent almost 40 percent of US energy consumption and an equivalent percentage of CO2 emissions – more than automobiles or industry.

We have the ability to offset 85 percent of America's incremental electricity needs in 2030 through building and appliance efficiency measures that save more money than they cost to implement, as McKinsey & Co. articulated in "Reducing US Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How Much at What Cost?"

These solutions – simple things, such as retrofitting commercial buildings, weatherizing our homes, and using energy-efficient appliances – challenge every American and every American business to act. The immediate reward: We improve our bottom line. Already, more than 24,000 homes, schools, and offices are registered with the US Green Building Council's LEED rating system.

Research shows that the average additional cost for new LEED-certified buildings is less than 2 percent of total project costs, and that those costs are repaid within the first 12 months of occupancy through operational savings. For example, Adobe Systems spent $1.4 million greening three LEED Platinum office towers at their headquarters in San Jose, Calif. The investment was fully paid back in just 10 months through energy, water, and other operating efficiencies.

We know renewable energy is limitless. But to put it in stark terms; the earth gets enough solar power every 40 minutes to meet the whole world's energy demand for a full year. Wind power and geothermal resources are similarly capable of providing for our needs.

What's more, as demand for renewables rises, costs come down. That's the exact opposite of oil, which gets more and more expensive as demand goes up. While the cost of oil rose to more than $100 per barrel, the cost of silicon used to make solar cells dropped more than 80 percent.

By taking what may seem like a radical step now, and making our homes, schools, and offices power producers instead of energy hogs, people are demonstrating how effective putting these facts into practice can be. By making efficiency and renewables the norm, we can envision a very different future.

Buildings can become part of a distributed, renewable energy infrastructure that's not only cleaner and greener, but also more resilient than one that depends on a small number of big power plants to keep the lights on.

Highly redundant distributed systems like these – systems with a network of interconnections between many parts capable of performing the same critical functions – are not only common in nature; they are increasingly preferred in commerce. The triumph of the Internet over mainframes and wireless over wires speak to that fact.

Successful steps forward are not yet ubiquitous, but they do exist from Maryland to Seattle. Early leaders like Austin, Texas and the State of California focused first on energy efficiency, demonstrated the case through government-owned buildings and private-sector incentives, built a constituency for change, and are now pushing the frontier with zero-energy buildings.

The city of Austin, which boasts the first green home program in the country, now requires all new homes to be net-zero energy capable, or able to operate completely off the grid, by 2015; and California's Energy Commission has recommended similar requirements by 2020.

Realizing the full potential of efficiency puts dollars back into our economy. Those can then be invested in renewable energy technologies to build scale and bring down costs. We have what we need. It is not necessary to argue over drilling.

By embracing efficiency and deploying renewables right now, we can help build a prosperous and sustainable low-carbon future.

Michelle Moore is senior vice president of the US Green Building Council in Washington.

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