Reducing energy use at low cost

Energy saving in buildings may be the most cost-effective and achievable strategy to address climate change. Collaboration between China and the US, writes David Hathaway, demonstrates that the best strategy is decidedly low-tech.

In 2004, Tang Jianping proudly received an award for leadership in reducing building energy use. The prize, from the Association of Shanghai Property Managers (TASPM), was awarded after Tang achieved a 20% reduction in the energy used in his building: a large 27,000-square-metre office tower in Shanghai called the New Town Centre. He achieved these reductions entirely through no-cost and low-cost operational improvement measures.

Tang’s achievements represent a mid-point in an evolving picture of how managing the energy used in buildings may become one of the world’s most cost-effective and achievable means of reducing energy and greenhouse gases over the next several years.

The broader story begins with the US ENERGY STAR buildings programme, a national effort led by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The initiative has worked with buildings in the United States since the mid-1990s to reward exemplary building energy performance, a voluntary programme model largely credited with transforming the way buildings are managed in the US. In 2000, the programme conducted research to compare buildings that had achieved the highest energy performance rating with other buildings in the market. The findings were surprising, indicating that the buildings with the best overall performance did not consistently have the newest or most efficient building technologies, but were characterised by aggressive building management strategies. This research became known as the “Class of 2000” study.

Several years later, as the EPA was designing an approach to assist buildings in China to reduce energy, a focus on operations became the natural starting point. Research EPA had conducted in China indicated that no-cost and low-cost operational strategies for improving building energy performance yielded similar opportunities as those already seen in the US. This was the beginning of the EPA’s “eeBuildings” programme, an initiative that eventually worked with 60 million square metres of building space in China, and provided training to more than 2,500 building managers from 2001 to 2008. Tang was one of the eeBuildings programme’s first successful participants.

His experience is a real world example of a much broader opportunity that is beginning to evolve in China and around the world regarding energy use in buildings. There has been a growing realisation that buildings may offer the best global opportunity for reducing energy and greenhouse-gas emissions quickly and cost-effectively.

The growth in China’s building sector and its impact on energy usage have been well documented. For example, in recent years China has added approximately 2 billion square metres of buildings annually. According to China’s ministry of construction, building energy consumption has increased more than 10% each year for the last 20 years and now represents approximately 25% of all energy use in China.

However, efforts so far to address energy use in Chinese buildings have stayed largely in the design and minimum standards areas, and have not focused on empowering building managers to achieve higher levels of exemplary energy performance (as demonstrated by Tang and the New Town Centre). There has historically been a focus in China, and internationally, on designing new buildings that are assumed to use less energy. Less attention has been placed on the performance of existing buildings after they are built – a critical gap.

But there are signs that a shift in emphasis may be coming, both globally and in China. Following on the EPA study in 2000, newer research indicates that even buildings designed to be highly efficient may not be achieving expected savings. In 2008, in a study commissioned by the US Green Building Council, researchers found that among buildings certified by one of its programmes (LEED for New Construction), a full 25% of those buildings scored below 50 in the 100-point ENERGY STAR benchmarking scale for energy performance once they were operational. This finding is initial, but points to the idea that even buildings designed for high efficiency need to be operated using best practices or they will not save the energy they are designed to save – actual savings are seen once a building is under operation.

In China, the results of the eeBuildings program in successfully targeting no-cost and low-cost operational measures did not go unnoticed. In 2007, the US EPA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese ministry of construction, now known as the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction (MHURC), to collaborate in further demonstrating and promoting building operational improvement strategy. In addition, EPA and MHURC agreed to collaborate on investing in the development of a building energy performance benchmarking rating system in China. A similar rating system developed by EPA for use in the ENERGY STAR buildings programme has been in place for the past decade and has been the basis for its building performance certification system. This benchmarking system provides a unified metric (a score of 1 to 100) that rates buildings in the United States on their energy performance, and is able to accommodate differences in location, climate, size and other characteristics through its analytic capacities, which means it can be used nationally in all locations. Currently, the EPA benchmarking system has provided building energy performance scores to more than 60,000 buildings in the US, providing a quick, easy, and cost-effective metric to the market for targeting where energy efficiency improvements are most needed. No such metric currently exists in China.

In 2009, US-China bilateral collaboration in these areas has expanded through two new successor programmes, both of which are working in coordination with the MHURC. A programme supported by the US Department of State is aimed at demonstrating the no-cost and low-cost approach to reducing energy use in up to 10 additional Chinese cities. A programme supported by the US Agency for International Development is developing a prototype building energy performance benchmarking rating system.

If this new collaboration is successful, Chinese policymakers will have a powerful set of tools at their disposal to design programmes that effectively target reductions in energy use across thousands of buildings in China. A benchmarking rating system can cost-effectively and quickly rate thousands of buildings to identify those with the poorest performance and greatest need for improvement. A national programme of organised assistance to buildings in reducing energy use through no-cost and low-cost measures would allow buildings with low or moderate performance to improve performance without the need for capital-intensive, or time-consuming, technology upgrades.

The confluence of experience, learning and collaboration that has gathered around this opportunity to save energy is instructive. The impetus for the collaboration was based on actual programme results from a large-scale national effort (ENERGY STAR), and did not bring untested ideas to a new market. An approach for the China market (eeBuildings) was developed that addressed a key barrier (the perceived need for technology and capital). Finally, the ability to implement sustained, long-term collaboration allowed the learning and experience generated through these initiatives to evolve organically to a point where it these might be successfully leveraged as a basis for a real national solution.

The core themes in this ongoing collaboration are likely to have utility beyond China and beyond developing markets. Green building initiatives will almost certainly be increasing their focus on existing building energy performance. Large corporations worldwide are also increasingly seeing the value of implementing approaches that target low-cost energy performance improvement over their large global building portfolios, as a more powerful energy savings alternative to the more limited focus on, for example, designing a single green certified headquarters building. Economies such as India face challenges that are analogous to China’s, such as the lack of a single building energy performance metric, and no organised support to help buildings reduce energy. These offer opportunities for parallel solutions, some of which are already underway.

David Hathaway is managing director of ICF International (China). Susan Wickwire, of the US Environmental Protection Agency, contributed to this report.

Homepage photo by Cory Doctorow