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How Big A Deal Is Green Building?

Over at Grist, Dave Roberts draws up a bunch of probing questions for Al Gore about his new "100 percent renewable electricity by 2018" plan—most of them critical. I especially liked this question:

The bulk of electricity is used in the building sector. Why did your speech include no call to remake or retrofit America's buildings?

Now, I like superbugs as much as the next guy, but it's easy to forget that United States could still make massive—and cheap—reductions in its energy use in the short term just by doing small, boring stuff like tightening up building efficiency. The raw numbers are awfully compelling; here's a July report, for instance, from Environment America: "One quad of energy gained through building efficiency would cost $42.1 billion, 35 percent of the cost to gain the same amount of energy through new coal plants, and under 20 percent of the cost to gain the same amount of energy through new nuclear generation." (The United States uses about 35 quads of energy total.)

One major obstacle here, as Joel Makower (among others) has pointed out, is that many developers and builders aren't thrilled with paying higher upfront costs to make improvements that will benefit renters, homeowners, or building owners. Another problem is that buyers and renters usually don't have enough information to seek out more energy-efficient buildings in the first place. So there's are market barriers that state and local governments can help hurdle. California has been ratcheting up its building codes of late, but they're still way ahead of everyone else.

--Bradford Plumer