WREF Tuesday Plenary – Solutions for Sore Eyes

If you have been feeling jaded by all the green talk and underwhelmed by apparent progress; if you are frustrated by federal gridlock and looking for action, you’ll be interested in the Tuesday plenary session at WREF2012.

"SolarCity" at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, outside of Tucson, AZ, was a partnership with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. (Photo credit: http://www.npr.org/2011/11/30/142935396/big-solar-project-moves-forward-without-uncle-sam)
“SolarCity” at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, outside of Tucson, AZ, was a partnership with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. (Photo credit: http://www.npr.org/2011/11/30/142935396/big-solar-project-moves-forward-without-uncle-sam)

First up was the Department of Defense (DOD), steely sights set on the edge to be gained through energy security.  Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment Dorothy Robyn demonstrated countless current and planned projects in energy streamlining and renewable supply.  As usual, they go big:  they have committed over $1 billion in the next two years in load reduction for existing buildings, using performance contracting.  They plan to shake their dependence on the grid with 3 GW in renewable supply by 2025, leveraging private partnerships, and plugging into advanced microgrids.  If the DOD is investing, you know there’s a payout.  Following their long tradition of “Dem/Val” (Demonstration/Validation), the DOD is not afraid to act as a test bed for emerging technologies, such as electrochromic self-tint windows, membrane-based dehumidification, and beetle-kill biomass gasification.  Camp Roberts is currently testing its new 1 MW solar array, printed in nano-particle ink, heat-seeking that holiest of grails — grid parity.

Ambassador Oreck in one of the channels of the district heating system under Helsinki. (Photo credit: http://www.usembassy.fi/blog/?p=848)

Next up was Bruce Oreck, bodybuilding river guide and U.S. Ambassador to Finland.  Working on his LEED Platinum house in Boulder, I came to appreciate his direct-drive diplomacy.  Bruce doesn’t mince words – he hammers them into shape.  His talk, appropriately, (but to the surprise of those expecting another talk about energy), was about communication.  Our problem solving the carbon and energy crisis, he says, is not about technology – it is about words.  His tough love for the clean energy crowd addresses their habits of speech:  DO NOT SAY “go green,” he says — “It is poisonous to your objectives” — conjuring hippies and wrinkling the noses of half of the population.  DO NOT SAY “save energy” – it implies scrimping.  Psychologists know that people would rather make $20 than save $20.  In some of our best oil country, only 20% of the wells pay out in 7 years – and they talk about making money.  Energy efficiency, on the other hand, shows higher returns than popular securities.  So why are we still talking about saving?  Bruce makes believers when he crosses those oarsman’s arms and talks money:  energy efficiency has “No dry holes, I guarantee it.”

Seattle’s 2030 District (Photo Credit: Architecture 2030)

To wrap, Edward Mazria rolled out the roadmap.  The founder of Architecture 2030 closed his practice to take up the challenge of mapping the steps to carbon neutrality in the building sector by 2030.  The goal is to return to safe levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases by zeroing the use of fossil fuels in buildings.  Mazria is not naïve of the gloom and political menace under the “business-as-usual” curve, but he is an architect, and his business is vision.  When I caught up with him after the plenary, I asked him how his goal compares with the sunsetting Kyoto Protocol, which comes in for criticism as unattainable.  The 2030 Challenge is growing in popularity, not shrinking, he says, and names some of the latest recruits.  He can claim 41% of architecture and engineering firms, 7 states, the National Governor’s Association, the US Conference of Mayors, many cities, and section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act, signed by President Bush.

The popularity of the 2030 Challenge is that it deals not in problems but in solutions, through discrete and approachable example.  This attainability – this challenge – inspires hope and attracts talent.  Federal leadership is frozen?  Any state, city, town, or firm can pull up to the drawing board.  Architecture 2030 is about to open the toolbox — the 2030 Palette will launch in a global summit in 7 months.  The toolbox is a free shared library of building and planning resources for decarbonization – evolving as it incorporates solutions and lessons learned come from participants worldwide.  We are already beginning to move in the right direction:  emissions are down from Energy Information Administration projections by the equivalent of 700 coal plants and $3.6 trillion.  This progress is not just an artifact of the economy – it has been due to the adoption of building energy codes as recommended by Architecture 2030.  Mazria reminds us that 75% of buildings will likely be new or renovated by 2035, and ripe for upgrades.  Ever since he called out the building sector as the problem  in It’s the Architecture, Stupid!  Mazria and the movement he founded have been the first to say that projections are not fate, and to supply the inspiration for this wave of change.  To lend your hand to the 2030 Palette, create a profile here.

Though diverse in their perspective, Robyn, Oreck and Mazria all provided interesting solutions  to important issues the world is facing.

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