By David Nemtzow, Acting Director
I recently spoke with two distinct audiences about the importance of buildings in the U.S. energy space. Both the FEMP Energy Exchange conference and a group hosted by the Alliance to Save Energy had roomfuls of energy savvy professionals, many – but I suspect not all – of whom recognize the scope of opportunities the U.S. buildings sector offers for reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
So let’s start at the beginning: Improving energy use by buildings is at the center of the U.S.’s (and world’s) energy and climate challenges. Period.
There are currently some 130 million residential units in the United States – which most of you think as homes. We at the Building Technologies Office (BTO) are prone to think of them as energy consumption structures. The 5+ million commercial buildings that make up our offices, schools, hospitals, and grocery stores? They also represent a huge opportunity for energy savings. Together, all of these buildings represent 40% of the energy consumed within the U.S., 76% of all electricity, and are responsible for 34% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That makes for a lot of space for improvement.
That’s what guides the work of BTO, helping improve energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings from research to locking in the savings.
WORKING FROM TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT TO MARKET ACCEPTANCE
On the spectrum of change from technology development to widespread adoption, DOE wears a variety of hats. Federal support for technology research and development can help overcome the numerous barriers that impede the development and diffusion of new, energy-efficient technologies. While others help develop innovative and cutting edge research, BTO focuses on applied research with our national lab, university and industry partners. Technologies that are now common in the market started in this applied research space – LEDs, low-e windows, sensors and controls, and less harmful refrigerants. Without a catalyst like BTO, the housing industry might typically take 10 to 25 years to adopt new technologies and techniques. Private investment in the research and development needed to improve home energy performance is minimal; while other private industry sectors invest 3 percent in R&D, construction R&D lags at 0.3 percent.
Once these technologies have testable prototypes or commercialized products, BTO supports development, demonstration, and deployment activities to encourage integration into the marketplace. BTO works to give people access to information and resources, enabling and motivating them to reduce their energy consumption. We’re all familiar with the ENERGY STAR® labels on refrigerators and other products. But how do you understand the performance of your entire house? BTO’s Home Energy Score is an easily comparable label of home energy performance for existing homes and the Building Energy Asset Score gives comparable ratings to commercial buildings. Our High Impact Technology Catalyst helps commercial building owners and operators understand the costs and benefits of new energy-efficient technologies that have the potential to greatly improve their building’s energy usage, but which may lack the widespread brand recognition or awareness of conventional alternatives.
When energy-efficient technologies become commonplace in the market, that’s where BTO’s Appliance and Equipment Standards Program and Building Energy Codes Program lock in the energy savings for years to come. Appliance standards save consumers money while still maintaining performance; in fact, refrigerators today use one-quarter as much energy as they did in the 1970s, but still offer more volume, better features and superior performance. Homes built to the latest code are approximately 30 percent more efficient than those built to the 2006 specification.
We’ve come a long way first improving the energy efficiency of household appliances in the 1970s, but we’ve still got a long way to go to take advantage of the full energy-saving, comfort-enhancing, and productivity-improving opportunities in the nation’s buildings.
 Wolfe, Raymond M. (2013). Business Research and Development and Innovation: 2008-10 Detailed Statistical Tables. NSF 13-332. Arlington, VA: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). Accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf13332/pdf/nsf13332.pdf