Energy efficiency retrofits are claiming a growing spotlight on the national stage in this time of mounting concern over global climate change, rising energy costs, economic recession, and growing social and economic inequality. Retrofits, at the most basic level, consist of insulation, air sealing, weather proofing doors and windows, and installing energy-saving heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment.
However, retrofits can also take on greater depth and scale. The Emerald Cities Collaborative posits that energy efficiency-related repairs and upgrades can be coordinated with procedures such as lead abatement, which address health and safety hazards. Also, rather than being completed building-by-building, retrofit projects can be consolidated at the block level or neighborhood level to achieve greater economies of scale. Retrofits can further include landscaping, urban agriculture/aquaculture, water, and information communications systems (e.g. broadband), which link the building stock to the broader municipal and regional infrastructure. Finally, retrofit work can entail a host of green job opportunities along a value chain that consists of design, manufacturing, construction and installation.
We can think of the two types of retrofits, “basic” and “deep,” as occupying opposite ends of a continuum. Retrofitting en masse has the potential to achieve both environmental and social gains. In cities already undertaking retrofitting programs, results point to depth and scale as necessary ingredients for more fully realizing the gains inherent in retrofits. This is the case whether we are speaking along environmental, socio-economic, political, or cultural lines.
Environmental: Buildings are the largest source of energy consumption and carbon emission in the US. Making energy efficient buildings is the most cost effective way to generate the mitigation needed to meet our greenhouse gas goals. Unfortunately existing programs, which tend to proceed on a building-by-building basis, have an average 2% penetration rate (among target populations). This is well below the growth rate necessary to achieve policy objectives and curb potential environmental catastrophe.
The idea that retrofits enacted at greater scale and depth will generate greater environmental impact is widely accepted. However, if the notion of deep retrofits encompasses the creation of family sustaining jobs with career pathways, there is less agreement on whether deep retrofits offers more environmental benefits relative to basic retrofits. Some reason that higher costs of labor will add to implementation costs of retrofit programs, thereby diminishing their cost effectiveness and reach. In fact, incorporating a viable workforce and community development component into deep retrofits and garnering governmental support in this endeavor can ensure sustained environmental gains over the long run. Deep retrofit work requires a high-skilled, productive workforce, which likely outweighs any labor cost differential. Also, where climate change and energy security have been relatively weak bases for spurring public and private sector investment in energy efficiency or renewable energy, the need to create good jobs serves as a more effective political impetus to continue steering the nation along the trajectory of a clean energy economy.
Socio-economic: According to a widely cited study by McKinsey and Company (2009), the financial return on energy efficiency is estimated at 10% or higher. Besides generating energy and cost savings for building occupants as well as investors, retrofits can additionally spur job growth in areas as diverse as building and urban design, product development, manufacturing, product sale and distribution, construction and installation, and energy efficiency consulting. Such gains can translate into products and “know-how,” which can be exported to other countries. Within the United States, retrofits can lead to widespread economic recovery by generating good jobs and lifetime careers, creating new community based enterprises, and reducing urban poverty and chronic underemployment especially in communities of color (granted created jobs are appropriately targeted).
However, where retrofit projects largely proceed in a piecemeal fashion, this precludes economies of scale and minimizes regulatory oversight – two requisites to realizing the range of socio-economic gains. Economies of scale are necessary to seed incentives that drive innovation in developing financial mechanisms (which in turn increase program reach) and various components of the value chain (through bulk purchasing, lowered transportation costs, et cetera). Further, projects must reach a minimum level of scale before eliciting regulatory oversight, which serve to formalize effective codes and procedures and maintain a baseline of quality.
Political: Legislative action often comes in response to political mobilization and pressure. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which allocated unprecedented funds for furthering energy efficiency and renewable energy, arrived at the heels of a democratically elected president who had campaigned on a platform of change. State energy policy, some of which channel cap and trade proceeds and ratepayer funds into energy efficiency programs, have also been responsive to public opinion and action. At the same time, policy enactment is not simply a desired end but also invaluable as a process. By encompassing public education and democratic engagement, the process of policy enactment can improve the political system to achieve greater accountability and viability.
In the case of retrofits, enacting updated zoning and building codes, planning processes, community workforce agreements, and labor standards can serve two purposes. In addition to planting a firm foundation for a mode of retrofits that can generate multiple layers of benefits, it can provide lessons and tools for strengthening public awareness and democratic governance (which in turn lead to sounder policy and politics). Toward that end, a deep retrofit strategy that approaches the building unit as an integral piece of a larger neighborhood, city, and region may elicit more public involvement and generative democratic processes than basic retrofits carried out in a piecemeal fashion.
Cultural: For building energy efficiency retrofits to generate meaningful impact, this not only requires technical capacity but more fundamentally, attitude and behavior change. One of the most difficult challenges in retrofits centers on low penetration rates, which have seen only modest improvements with intensified marketing and outreach. Where the core issue here is lack of buy-in, needed changes are more likely to come about if efforts are embedded in existing institutions and community-based organizations with proven capacity. Also, messages, whether they are about retrofits or energy efficiency in general, are likely to attain higher resonance if framed in relation to the different issues that people grapple with on a daily basis, like safe communities, family sustaining jobs with career paths, and quality of life. Here, the holistic, longer-range approach embodied by deep retrofits appears more conducive to garnering wider support and deeper buy-in.
Photo by Claire Pienaar.