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January 15, 2003

Energy Efficient Mysteries


As part of our continuing coverage of architectural issues, I want to ask why one design element of any major building—energy efficiency—doesn’t seem to be making more headway. A story in the New York Times of January 15, which you can read here, discusses the limited headway so called “building green” had made:

[The lack of energy-efficient commercial architecture] is a phenomenon with parallels to the popularity of sport utility vehicles, except that buildings are responsible for more than 36 percent of the country's energy consumption, and transportation only 27 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy.

While the headline for the Times article stresses that developers’ lack of interest is “a Matter of Economics” this doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Energy efficiency is, of course, a self-financing improvement…over time. While the original cost of such buildings seems to be modestly higher than “standard” commercial construction—the article cites costs that are anywhere from $0.45 to $2.00 a foot higher (although it doesn’t specify how much energy efficiency this buys)—such expense would seem easily recoverable from lower operating costs. I know studies have revealed that manufacturing businesses often demand insanely high internal rates of return on energy efficiency expenditures—50% or more per annum has been quoted—but one would assume that real estate investors with an even medium-term outlook would be willing to accept more modest returns. (Interestingly, several of the companies that seem most active in this area tend to be well established organizations that presumably do take a longer-term view of these questions.)

If 4 Times Square Can Do Solar, Why Not the Sun Belt?

I remember while walking around Las Vegas last summer wondering why the casinos, which must have enormous energy costs, weren’t trying to offset them with photovoltaic panels. The issue seemed even more odd because I had read only a few days previously that such panels are now less expensive than an equivalent square footage of polished stone, the kind that fronts many of the newer casinos. While photovoltaics may not be as terribly practical outside the sun belt, I have seen few applications of them even there. Odd, isn’t it, that even in a capitalist society many economically justifiable improvements seem to languish because of, what—inertia? fashion?



posted by Friedrich at January 15, 2003


Can anyone out there fill us in on some details here?

I know close to zip about solar, though I've looked at a few charts showing how the price of electricity generated by solar has been coming down. But coming down enough to make commercial sense? You'd think that in Nevada and the Southwest especially there'd be no reason not to use solar. But I dimly recall reading another piece about how the "promise" of solar was yet another semi-hoax foisted on us by the '60s and '70s -- that, while it may make commercial sense in 40 or 50 years, it isn't likely to do so anytime soon, and that we've all been dupes to assume it would.

But now may be the moment to admit I'm in this discussion completel over my head. Hard facts and trustworthy information will be appreciated...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2003 11:43 PM

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