I attended the Cleantech Green Building Symposium this week in San Francisco and heard Dian Greuneich, director of the California Public Utilities Commission, unveil California's Strategic Plan for Energy Efficiency (PDF) adopted into law this year, with the goal of dramatically reducing the energy consumed by both residential and commercial buildings.  Buildings currently account for 40% of all energy used in the US, and if you factor in the energy used to manufacture building materials, that figure rises to a whopping 52%.

Clearly, making buildings more energy efficient is one of the most, if not the most, important thing we can do to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  And implementing energy efficiency is not difficult.  One expert on the panel, Steve Selkowitz of Lawrence Berkeley Labs said, "We're not talking about low-hanging fruit.  The fruit is just lying on the ground."

California has already proven that regulation at the state level can have dramatic long-term benefits.  The California Energy Commission (CEC) implemented building and appliance standards way back in 1978, flattening out the rate at which individuals were increasing energy consumption.  

For the past 30 years, California has stayed at about 7,000 kWh's per person per year while consumption in the rest of the US has continued to rise, and rise rapidly.  The average US resident now consumes about 12,000 kwH per year.

It's not the fault of the consumer.  Few other states have codes requiring that buildings, heating & cooling systems, and appliance be more efficient.  The CEC estimates that such regulations in California have saved California consumers more than $56 billion to date, with an additional projected savings of $23 billion by 2013.

What is Zero Net?

California's Long-Term Energy Efficiency Plan was inspired when Commissioner Greuneich was visiting the UK in 2007.  The British government has already set a goal to achieve 'Zero Net' homes by 2016.  Greuneich thought, "Well if they can do it by 2016, we can at least do it 2020."  Those was born the 2020 plan.

A Zero Net home uses both radical energy efficiency measures and on-site energy generation to make the home "energy independent."  That means all of the building's energy needs are met on the property, and it does not increase either energy demand or greenhouse gas emissions.  Zero Net homes will result in less cost for the home owner, and will create jobs by spurring a host of new technologies made in the USA -- from insulation, windows and building materials to micro-wind turbines and solar hot water heaters.   

Geos HomesSeveral hundred Zero Net homes are in development, including the Geos project in Colorado, which uses a new technology called "GeoSolar" -- a combination of solar photovoltaic and ground-source heat pumps (which store solar heat in the ground).  The look just like regular homes, but incorporate technology and design engineering readily available today.  

As many experts points out, "This is not rocket science."  It is just about getting these homes written into the building codes, and providing incentives that will offset the initial investment costs.  

Big, bold strategies

This is just what the State of California is planning to do.  The Energy Efficiency Plan is the result of a year-long collaboration between energy experts, utility companies, business and consumer focus groups, nonprofits and the California Public Utility Commission.  The result are four "Big, Bold Strategies" that will drastically reduce average per capita energy consumption.  The four strategies are:

1. All new residential construction will be Zero Net by 2020.

2. All new commercial construction will be Zero Net by 2030.

3. The HVAC (heating, ventilation & AC) will receive a major overhaul and new codes.

4. the LIFE program will be implemented by 2020, giving low-income resident access to energy efficient products for their homes.

A prototype for the future

The California PUC is already in discussion with the Obama Transition Team and talk is that the Zero Net plan adopted into law by California will become a prototype to roll out nationwide.  California is also working closely with the Chinese government.  It's not going to help the planet very much if the US becomes carbon neutral while China, the fastest growing economy in the world, continues to consume more and more fossil fuels.  So a partnership has been formed to share the developments in the US Zero Net market with China, helping them and the world manage growth while maintaining a heathy environment.

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