When will the US Senate conduct hearings on “energy loss” programs?

Yesterday a Senate Committee grilled “Dr. Oz” about the promotion of weight-loss products on his show.  At issue are the unsupported claims made for these products and the false hopes of millions of viewers who are looking for quick ways to lose weight.  I would like to know when the Senate will grill proponents of green buildings in the same way.

Don’t get me wrong — I know that Americans need to lose weight, and there are very clear ways to do that with slow, determined change in behavior.  The same is true for improving building energy efficiency.  There are clear ways to cost-effectively improve buildings so that they use 10-20% less energy without any loss of performance.

But Americans want quick solutions — ways to lose 30 pounds in one month without pain or suffering.  And there is an entire industry out there selling products which promise to achieve these very results.  But there is no scientific evidence to support such claims, and mostly people spend their money on these products and never reap their promised benefits.  The few who do achieve the desired weight loss do it because of their regular exercise and reduction in caloric intake — perhaps coincident with the use of some new product, but having no other connection to it.

America’s energy-guzzling buildings have much in common with its overweight population.  And a government-sponsored industry – not unlike the one promoted by Dr. Oz – has emerged promoting green buildings, zero energy buildings, and high-performance buildings — all promising great energy savings for those who adopt their strategies. The US Green Building Council claims that its LEED-certified buildings are achieving 47% energy savings.  The EPA claims that its ENERGY STAR benchmarking program yields significant energy savings.  The New Buildings Institute promotes Zero Energy Buildings as the ultimate “weight loss program.”  The US Federal government pours millions of dollars into GSA, DOE and EPA programs that prumulgate these ideas.  My own state of Ohio has spent millions on LEED-certified schools without a single scientific study to demonstrate that these buildings actually save energy.  The list of organizations and claims goes on and on.

Yet the above claims are, at best, outrageous exagerations.  The USGBC claim is made for a “cherry picked” subset of its buildings and is based on ENERGY STAR scores which have no scientific credibility [see earlier post].  The EPA claims are similarly based on ENERGY STAR scores and do not stand up to close inspection.  And close inspection of data gathered by NBI shows that, at most, about 10 US commercial buildings in the country have demonstrated net-zero performance.  Amercia is spending millions on these green and high performance buildings efforts with little data to demonstrate efficacy.

Don’t get me wrong — I am a stong advocate of cost-effective energy efficiency and energy conservation.  I am also a strong advocate of exercise and sensible nutrition.



ENERGY STAR energy benchmarking is not ready for prime time

I recently had occasion to read an old paper by Janda and Brodsky describing the “first class” of ENERGY STAR certified office buildings.  This is one of only a handful of papers in the peer-reviewed literature regarding ENERGY STAR building scores.  Janda and Brodsky describe the brand name ENERGY STAR as

a set of voluntary partnerships between the U.S. government and product manufacturers, local utilities, home builders, retailers, and businesses.  These partnerships are designed to encourage energy efficiency in products, appliances, homes, offices, and other buildings.

This was the basis for the EPA’s building ENERGY STAR scoring system.  It was a “game” that building managers voluntarily agreed to play with rules (methodology for scoring buildings) set by the EPA in consultation with those playing the game.  There was no scientific vetting of the “rules of the game” — nor did there need to be — it was just a game designed to “encourage energy efficiency.”  No one was forced to play the game.  Data submitted to Portfolio Manager (the EPA’s web-based tool for calculating scores) and ENERGY STAR scores issued by the EPA were confidential — unless a building sought and received ENERGY STAR certification.  Participation was entirely voluntary.  Building managers disappointed with their ENERGY STAR scores could just walk away from the game — no harm, no foul.

But this has all changed.  In recent years 1) the EPA has published specific claims regarding energy savings associated with its ENERGY STAR benchmarking program (real savings not just fantasy football), 2) external organizations like the USGBC have adopted the ENERGY STAR score as their metric for energy efficiency in green building certification programs and are using these scores to make energy savings claims of their own, and 3) major U.S. cities have passed laws requiring commercial building owners to use Portfolio Manager to benchmark their buildings and, in many cases, the resulting ENERGY STAR scores are being made public.  With federal, state, and local governments requiring LEED certification for public buildings this is no longer a voluntary game — it is mandatory and real (testable) energy claims are being made based upon ENERGY STAR scores.  Now the science behind such claims actually matters — and this science has never been vetted.

Its kinda like a small, “mom and pop” operation that has been selling chicken soup using “grandma’s recipe” without obtaining proper license or FDA approval.  Now imagine Walmart decides to market and sell the soup — the scrutiny changes.

As a voluntary game with no connection to reality it is OK that the EPA negotiates rules for its ENERGY STAR ratings with different constituents — like allowing Washington DC office buildings to ignore their “first floors” in seeking ENERGY STAR certification.  After all, who am I to interfere in the activities between consenting adults when these activities do not affect me?  But for ENERGY STAR — these days are gone.

In the next year we will learn much about the science that underpins the EPA’s ENERGY STAR benchmarking system — and the results are likely to be very disappointing.  This benchmarking system is not ready for prime time.