Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Building for our energy needs

In the debate on large-scale renewable energy, we often hear that our energy efforts should focus on conservation and roof-top solar to meet demand.

At SLO Green Build and the U.S. Green Building Council Central Coast Chapter we absolutely agree with that priority — after all, that is the very heart of our organizations. But even we recognize that energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy is simply not enough for our present situation.

According to the California Energy Commission, in 2008 in California, we used more than 300,000 gigawatt hours (GWH) of electricity, with projections to 360,000 GWH by 2020. Statewide, buildings account for about 40 percent of that electricity, used for cooling, heating, lighting and pumping water. The rest is for industry and agriculture.

We know that we can design and construct buildings that use very little energy, and our State Energy Code Title 24 is heading in that direction, although not as quickly as we would like. We believe every new project should pass Title 24 by at least 15 percent to 30 percent or more, depending on the building type. We should also renovate existing buildings and upgrade appliances, which could reduce electric use there by 40 percent on average. With passive solar design and building energy efficiency, combined with innovation in industry and agriculture, we may be able to cut 25 percent of our total electricity demand, dropping us down to 270,000 GWH.

How much of that demand can we meet with on-site renewable energy? We know intuitively that roof-top renewable energy cannot meet the needs of every project. Shading, slope and multi-story buildings clearly limit the quantity of on-site production. Still, we see dramatic potential for increasing on-site solar and roof installations, and policy barriers are being modified to support economic innovation in this area. SB 32 and AB 920 signed on Oct. 11, are a step forward, allowing roof-top electricity production to be part of the utility companies’ Renewable Energy Portfolio, and allowing individuals to sell back into the grid. When completed, the Million Solar Roof initiative would generate 6,000 GWH by 2018. Although we currently are far off track, with policy and incentive shifts we could get there and more, say 20,000 GWH.

With aggressive (really aggressive) building improvement and on-site renewable energy, we believe we really could reduce California’s electric demand by more than 100,000 GWH — 30 percent! And we’d create jobs, keep dollars in the local economy, promote security through energy independence, and of course meet the legal requirement and environmental necessity for reduced green house gas emissions. Our figures are rough but illustrate that when political will and fiscal priority come together, this target is achievable.

Still, that leaves almost 250,000 GWH required to meet our electric demand, currently generated with natural gas (46 percent), coal (18 percent), nuclear (14 percent), large scale hydro (11 percent) and renewable (11 percent). New large scale solar and wind installations will have environmental, economic and employment impacts, just as there are with any energy generation. Even within our organizations, opinions vary as to what scale of renewable generation makes sense for our area. But we recognize that even in our most optimistic scenario, conservation and on-site renewable energy, while absolutely essential and our focus, will not meet demand.

Carefully-considered utility-scale renewable energy must be a part of our sustainable future.

Andy Pease is with SLO Green Build. Marilyn Farmer is with the California Central Coast Chapter (C4) of U.S. Green Building Council.