A Look at the Better Buildings Initiative

According to the Department of Energy, “last year, commercial and industrial buildings used roughly 50% of the energy in the U.S. economy at a cost of over $400 billion.” In response, the Obama Administration has come up with a solution intended to “catalyze revolutionary change in energy across U.S. buildings:” the Better Buildings Initiative.

President Obama announced this Initiative in 2011 as a way to increase and accelerate financing opportunities for building upgrades, workforce training in energy audits and building operation, and tax incentives to encourage more energy efficiency upgrades. Facilitated by DOE, the initiative consists of “Better Buildings” strategies and programs that offer various ways for organizations to participate in energy savings projects.

First, there are three “Better Buildings” strategies that specifically target the market sector: the Better Buildings Challenge, Better Buildings Alliance, and Better Buildings, Better Plants. The Better Buildings Challenge involves CEOs and executives of U.S. companies, universities, school districts, multifamily residential organizations, and state and local government making a public commitment to energy efficiency. It’s a three step process. Those involved first pledge an energy savings goal, then implement a plan, and share their savings data and strategies as models for others to follow.

The Better Buildings, Better Plants Program is for the industrial sector and makes largely the same set of commitments as the Better Buildings Challenge. The Better Buildings Alliance works with the seven key market sectors (retail, food service, commercial real estate, public, hospitality, healthcare, and higher education) to form a membership, in which they work with DOE to get energy efficiency related information, connect with other sector peers to address common challenges, and share their successes and help other members replicate results.

Then, there is a program for residential buildings: Better Buildings Neighborhood. This offers federal funding for select state and local governments to make residential building energy efficiency upgrades. This program also provides homeowners and building owners with information about energy efficiency benefits and how to obtain them, which complements the Initiative’s educational programs. The Better Information Program establishes guidelines for appraisers conducting commercial and residential building energy performance appraisals. And the Workforce Training and Learning Program enhances training and education programs for various organizations and increases access to information for the national workforce. Also, through the Better Buildings Case Competition, college students can engage in finding solutions to energy problems, which are then used by businesses and other organizations across the marketplace as a model.

Through this initiative, President Obama has required the federal government to implement energy savings projects and performance based contracting for energy savings and lead by example. The recent Climate Action Plan announced the plan to launch an additional Better Buildings project, the Better Buildings Accelerators. It is a “new track that will support and encourage adoption of State and local policies to cut energy waste, building on the momentum of ongoing efforts at that level.” The plan also commits to expanding the Better Buildings Challenge to multifamily housing to further reduce energy waste.

So far, a progress report, published in 2012, shows more than 110 organizations participating in the challenges. Leading financial firms and utilities committed to almost $2 billion in energy efficiency financing. To date, more than $3 billion in Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds (QECBs) have been awarded as part of the federal incentive mechanisms for participating in these challenges. The initiate aims to make commercial and industrial buildings 20% more energy efficient by 2020, which could cut an average of 2.5% carbon pollution from the U.S. buildings sector annually, equivalent to about $58 million in energy savings per year.

The Better Buildings Initiative provides an important pathway for building owners to participate in energy savings efforts. If implemented properly, these efforts will lead to a better built environment that’s good for both public health and the natural environment.

- Written by Jiin G. Park

*Jiin G. Park is an intern at Earth Day Network and a MA candidate in Environmental Conservation Education at New York University.