For the third time in a year, the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress are trying to eliminate a trailblazing law that requires new federal buildings to be largely free of fossil fuels by 2030.
But this time the effort is gaining momentum—in part because it has surprising support from mainstream energy efficiency advocacy groups in Washington D.C.
Their decision to back industry has ruffled the feathers of several environmental organizations and green building advocates, who say the law is critical to decrease America's dependence on fossil fuels. Some feel deceived.
"It was a slap in the face," said Ed Mazria, founder of the New Mexico-based Architecture 2030, a building sector advocacy group that focuses on climate change.
Phoenix, Arizona—From a block away, the house was hardly visible, hidden by a dense stand of native mesquite and palo verde trees and tall clumps of prickly pear cactus. Close up, you could see the concrete block structure, built a half century ago when acres of citrus groves were broken into parcels and replaced by homes.
Turning the site back into desert took some work, Brock Tunnicliff explained, standing outside his house on a typical September morning in the Sonoran desert, temperatures in the mid-80s under a nearly cloudless sky. It also took some courage, because desert landscaping isn't popular in Phoenix. Most people here still prefer a lawn out front and a swimming pool in the back.
For Tunnicliff, who works in natural resource management, adopting native landscape was a logical choice in a desert climate. Bolted to his roof was another rational choice: a solar photovoltaic system that supplies most of his family's electricity needs. He installed the system even though he estimates it will take 12 years to break even on the investment.
"That is the future of energy," he said, pointing to the dark blue panels on his roof.
How far in the future is anyone's guess, however. Four years after Tunnicliff installed the system, a satellite image reveals no other solar panels in his neighborhood. In America's sunniest and driest big city, swimming pools still outnumber solar panels by a thousand to one. In fact, Germany—which receives only half as much sunlight as Arizona—has four times as much solar power installed per capita as the Grand Canyon state. Compared nation-to-nation, Germany's advantage is even more lopsided: This darker, cloudier central European country has 23 times more solar power per capita than the United States.
Hamburg, Germany—It was late morning when I stepped out of my hotel lobby and into the jostle of Kirchenallee Street in Hamburg's city center. I checked my watch, jotted down the time in my notebook and set out for the nearest subway station (U-Bahn in German).
The sidewalks were packed with people enjoying the glorious spring weather on May Day, a public holiday similar to Labor Day in the United States. When I arrived at a stairway beneath a large "U," I checked the time. The walk from my hotel to Hauptbahnhof Süd station had taken one minute and 30 seconds. Seven minutes later I was on a subway car speeding smoothly south.
A trip across Hamburg is like visiting the launch pad of Germany's renewable energy revolution, or Energiewende. Planners call it the "built environment," a term that includes buildings, parks and the transportation system that connects them. How a city handles these ho-hum elements determines everything from energy usage to greenhouse gas emissions to the quality of life enjoyed by residents.
Berlin, Germany—The view from the Reichstag roof on a sun-drenched spring afternoon is spectacular. Looking out over Berlin from the seat of the German government, you can see the full sweep of the nation's history: from Humboldt University, where Albert Einstein taught physics for two decades, to the site of the former Gestapo headquarters.
I'm not here to see this country's freighted past, however. I've come to learn about what a majority of Germans believe is their future—and perhaps our own. There is no better place to begin this adventure than the Reichstag, rebuilt from near ruins in 1999 and now both a symbol and an example of the revolutionary movement known as the Energiewende. The word translates simply as, "energy change." But there's nothing simple about the Energiewende. It calls for an end to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power and embraces clean, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. The government has set a target of 80 percent renewable power by 2050, but many Germans I spoke with in three weeks traveling across this country believe 100 percent renewable power is achievable by then.
This is Chapter 1 of a six-part series on Germany's remarkable clean break with coal, oil and nuclear energy. Click to read Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5 and Chapter 6. You can read it all now as a Kindle Single ebook on Amazon for 99 cents.
Such a massive power shift may sound impossible to those of us from the United States, where giant oil and coal corporations control the energy industry and the very idea of human-caused climate change is still hotly contested. Here in Germany, that debate is long over. A dozen years of growing public support have driven all major political parties to endorse the Energiewende. If a member of parliament called climate change a hoax or said that its cause is unknown, he or she would be laughed out of office.
"The fight now, to the extent that there is one, is over the speed of the transition," Jens Kendzia told me as we stood on the Reichstag roof. Kendzia is chief of staff for a leader of the center-left Green Party, which crafted the legislation responsible for the Energiewende's success.
New York City's triangular-shaped buildings are notorious for being problematic sites for solar panels. Starting this fall, one five-story Brooklyn complex will defy that notion—by generating more solar power than it uses and becoming one of the city's greenest structures.
The building, the $700,000 Delta project, straddles the corner of Hamilton Avenue and 9th Street in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood. When it officially opens in September, the Delta will triple as a bed and breakfast, Philly cheesesteak shop and showcase for green building technologies. It is expected to influence carbon-neutral and net-zero energy construction in dense urban environments nationwide.
The natural gas industry and some allies are working behind the scenes in Washington to block a green building rule that was expected to be a national model for carbon-neutral construction.
The rule, called Fossil Fuel-Generated Energy Consumption Reduction, would zero out fossil-fuel use—coal, fuel oil and natural gas—in all new and renovated federal buildings by 2030.
The natural gas industry says the policy would harm its image as a more environmentally friendly fuel than coal. Proponents of green architecture say the mandate would hasten buildings' energy efficiency nationwide and be a big money-saver. The federal government spends more than $7 billion a year to operate its inventory of 502,000 buildings. Buildings guzzle 40 percent of U.S. energy.
The Department of Energy (DOE) has been crafting the rule over the past year and a half. But now, the House of Representatives is considering halting the effort by choking off federal money needed to complete the rulemaking. The move would need Senate approval.
The New York City Council this week adopted the country's most sweeping green building plan, approving citywide zoning regulations that encourage energy efficiency retrofits and widespread adoption of rooftop solar and wind.
The initiative, called Zone Green, will help the city slash annual energy costs of $15 billion and achieve its goal of trimming global warming emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The city's roughly one million buildings are responsible for almost 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, compared to 40 percent for the national average.
At Rod Stevenson's sprawling country home in Santa Rosa, Calif., in Sonoma County, once-leaky walls and windows are now sealed tight for energy efficiency, and his roof and yard are glittering with two dozen solar panels.
"We expect to save about $10,000 a year," on electricity and heating bills, Stevenson says, a nearly 70 percent drop from last year.
Stevenson, 62, runs a successful, century-old family business that sells construction supplies and materials to control soil erosion in Northern California. But retirement was hanging over him and his wife. "I really wanted to get to the point where we could get our [utility] bill down to virtually nothing," Stevenson recalls.
Architecture 2030, a building sector research and advocacy group, issued a report last week asserting that the greening of the U.S. building sector is on track to deliver far more energy savings than government officials predicted only a handful of years ago, with important implications for the country's energy and climate picture.
The report looked at data released without fanfare almost a year ago by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the analysis arm of the Department of Energy, which publishes projections for U.S. energy supply and demand each spring. Architecture 2030 compared EIA's 2005 and 2011 projections and found something that surprised them. The EIA had quietly, but dramatically, lowered long-term projections for energy use and carbon emissions from America's homes, office buildings and other commercial properties.
Energy consumption from buildings will increase by 14 percent from 2005 to 2030, the EIA said, down from the 44 percent spike it predicted seven years ago. Architecture 2030 says it amounts to eliminating the electricity output from 490 500-megawatt coal-fired plants over the same 25-year period.
The new projections mean Americans will save an additional $3.7 trillion on energy bills through 2030.