I spoke with Dennis Creech, co-founder and the executive director of Southface Energy Institute, a nonprofit organization that addresses the need for research and education in energy policy, sustainable technologies, and applied building science. Widely regarded as a thought leader on matters pertaining to energy policy and sustainability, Creech frequently participates in policy initiatives with Fortune 100 firms, government agencies, and community organizations. He was nominated in 2009 and 2010 for the prestigious Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing. In 2011, he received GreenLaw’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
As an organization, Southface Energy Institute is best known for running professional training programs, preparing students to obtain Building Performance Institute (BPI) certifications, and training home energy raters for Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) certification. So, when we started our conversation, it didn’t surprise me that Creech highlighted the need for more stringent training and certification requirements within the construction industry.
“In most states it takes more training to cut hair than it does to become an energy-efficiency expert. We have to change that. It’s too important. We must have credentials and high standards that people have to master before calling themselves professionals. If we can maintain professional standards, everyone benefits. Energy consumption touches people’s lives in a meaningful way, not just their pocketbooks, but in the most serious challenge our species has ever faced, and that is’s climate change. If we keep going into buildings and doing poor quality work, we’re in trouble.”
But pocketbook issues have more influence on people’s behavior than saving the planet, so Creech also emphasizes that energy efficiency investments provide an average 10% to 20% return. “Where else can you get that with low risk today?” he asked. But without professionals trained to high standards, consumers risk not getting the return on efficiency they invested in. This is why Creech calls quality professionals, “the foot soldiers of Architecture 2030.”
When I asked Creech what needed to happen over the next five, 10, and 20 years, he didn’t give me the answer I expected. I thought he would talk about industry-wide certification requirements, but he said the most important work is on the policy side, removing market barriers. “We can save a kilowatt hour of electricity for 0.03 cents through energy efficiency, but we are building new facilities at a cost of 10 to 15 cents a kilowatt hour. So why would we do this? Because utilities, which are regulated by public service commissions, can justify their legislated rate of return investing in new power plants, but not in efficiency. We need to decouple the profits utilities make from sales to service. The real point is to have safe, reliable energy, not an incentive to build more plants. We have to give the market the right incentives to do the right things; right now we give them incentives to ignore efficiency and focus on supply solutions.”
Creech said this change could be achieved on a national basis within 10 years: “We’re seeing it happen already, it is happening on a state-by-state basis, but it’s critical for the feds to keep standards like the Clean Air Act in place, as well as limits on air pollution that force utilities to invest in clean energy and efficiency. It’s important to put a price on carbon emission, assign a value to it. People forget we did a terrific job addressing acid rain with cap and trade, we put a cap on how much you can emit, and if you want to produce more, you have to buy it from the market. It worked, factories started to reduce the amount of sulfur they used. Right now we only tax the good things, we tax income, savings, investment, and then subsidize pollution and that’s crazy. We need to fix this, even if it’s now politically impossible. It will be doable in about 10 years just because it’s happening now in Europe and it makes sense.”
Lastly, he pointed to a controversial issue that has pitted energy efficiency advocates against the real estate industry: energy labeling. “Efficiency remains invisible in the marketplace. We have to make it visible. We already did it with food. I can see what’s in a Twinkie and make an informed decision that I do or don’t want to consume it, but when I buy or rent a building, I have no idea what calories it will consume for heating and cooling. And it’s much tougher to pay the mortgage with a $500-a-month utility bill than a $50-a-month utility bill. Energy efficiency is a great way to reduce risk, so there’s a financial as well as a national energy policy incentive to legislate mandatory building labeling that allows consumers to demand energy efficiency. Builders themselves have no direct incentive to build efficient buildings; they don’t pay the utility bill. Yes, there’s an indirect benefit to the consumer, but only if the market knows it. We need labeling on every single home, just like on every box of cookies.”