Energy Use and Greener Buildings

Energy prices and atmospheric temperatures are rising—putting energy efficiency on everyone’s front burner as a smart environmental and business practice. Reducing energy consumption—particularly from nonrenewable sources—will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and operating, manufacturing, and consumption costs.

Buildings consume approximately 37% of the energy and 68% of the electricity produced in the United States annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The good news is that by increasing efficiency, businesses and industry can also save money. Energy-management practices and energy-efficient equipment can reduce a plant’s energy costs by at least 20%—a net savings opportunity worth more than $11 billion by 2010 for the U.S.

But that’s not the whole story. Carbon-dioxide emissions from energy consumed by the commercial sector have jumped nearly 30% since 1980, the fastest rate of increase of any sector in the United States. Industry is another big emissions culprit: In 1997, industrial users burned fossil fuels to run motors, generate heat, operate machinery, and light buildings, consuming 37% of total U.S. energy and sending approximately 1.5 billion metric tons of emissions boiling into the atmosphere—a dangerous brew of carbon-dioxide, methane, and nitrous-oxide gases.

The upside is reduced long-term costs. Many energy-efficiency measures do not require additional first costs. Those measures that do result in higher first costs often create savings realized from lower energy use over the building lifetime, downsized equipment, reduced mechanical space needs, and utility rebates. Payback periods for many off-the-shelf energy efficiency measures are generally short.

Use of on-site renewable energy technologies can also result in energy cost savings, particularly if peak hour demand charges are high. Renewable energy can be generated on a building site by using technologies that convert energy from the sun, wind, and biomass into usable energy. On-site renewable energy is superior to conventional energy sources such as coal, nuclear, oil, natural gas, and hydropower generation, because of its negligible transportation costs and impacts. Utility rebates are often available to reduce first costs of renewable energy equipment. In some states, first costs can be offset by net metering, where excess electricity is sold back to the utility.

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