By Maria Saporta
For 12 years, Southface has been putting on its Greenprints conference to let builders, architects, planners and environmentalist know the latest in green building technology.
Ideas that might have seemed novel or forward thinking 12 years ago have now become accepted and expected.
“The green economy is going to be the only future economy that we will have available to us,” said John Straube, a building science engineer from Ontario, Canada who is an international expert in energy efficient buildings and was one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Greenprints conference.
His co-panelist, Alex Wilson, founder of BuildingGreen and executive editor of Environmental Building News, said the “green economy is solving problems in smarter ways.”
But challenges remain. In particular, retrofitting existing buildings to become more energy efficient is a huge undertaking that will require government incentives and greater public awareness on what currently is available in the industry.
Both Straube and Wilson don’t expect there to be “silver bullets” that will make our buildings more energy efficient overnight. Instead, Straube said there are “technologies that don’t need to be invented, but need to be deployed.”
The most important first step that owners of existing buildings can do is conduct an energy audit to see what kind of retrofits are needed. As Straube said, one can put in the highest energy-efficient window in a “leaky house,” and it won’t do any good.
But the upside is tremendous.
“Even a 50 percent reduction in energy use in homes is huge,” Wilson said, adding that such a reduction would dramatically improve climate change and reduce our dependence on foreign oils.
Straube also said that homeowners would be smart to time their energy upgrades when they are renovating their homes. When an HVAC system needs to be replaced, then find one with the highest energy ratings.
Both Straube and Wilson were excited about the possibilities of a developing a “smart grid” for energy distribution.
But both also saw that developing smart grid technologies would make electricity more expensive, something that they welcome. For example, several energy improvements are considered too expensive. But when the cost of energy increases, then those investments make more economic sense.
“I think smarter grids will help clean up the world,” Straube said.
In one of the breakout sessions after the luncheon speech, panelists said that solar energy and the development of other renewable energies would benefit by higher electricity prices.
The costs of providing solar energy are decreasing, and if traditional electricity prices rise, then solar will become an even more attractive alternative.
Walter Brown, a senior vice president of development and environmental affairs for Green Street Properties, also chairs the Georgia Solar Energy Association. Compared to other states like Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida, Georgia has been slow to invest in solar energy.
“This is still just the beginning,” Brown said, adding that several Georgia companies now have become leaders in solar technology.
Meanwhile, Georgia utility companies and government leaders have been reluctant to mandate a renewable energy portfolio.
By comparison, North Carolina passed a Renewable Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard in 2007 that set a goal of getting 12.5 percent of its energy from renewables by 2021,.
“We are the first state to adopt a portfolio in the Southeast,” said Dennis Scanlin, a professor in sustainable development at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Scanlin added that the portfolio has been the “most significant driver” in North Carolina to invest in renewable technologies.