Today was a big day on Washington for renewable energy and energy efficiency. While the Renewable Energy Expo was taking place at the Cannon House on Capitol Hill, the US Green Building Council was presenting their brand new LEED version 3 at the Federal Green Building Summit at the International Trade Center just off the Mall.

The event featured a talk by Senior White House Advisor Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality who discussed how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would help to achieve the environmental and economic goals set forth in the Energy Independence and Security Act.

Energy Efficiency in commercial buildings is a big part of the equation and is seen by energy experts and political heavyweights alike as the fastest (and most politically viable) route to energy independence.

According the the USGBC press release of today's event, buildings in the United States are responsible for 39% of CO2 emissions, 40% of energy consumption, 13% water consumption and 15% of GDP per year. This represents an unprecedented business opportunity that could create more than 2.5 million American jobs.

Energy efficiency in buildings is also the promising source of "renewable energy," one that does not require the construction of any new power plants at all.  According to the USGBC, a full 85% of future U.S. demand for energy can be provided by retrofitting existing buildings with energy efficiency measures and engineering new construction to take advantage of the latest and greatest in energy efficiency technology.

LEED version 3, which was unveiled in late April and explored today in D.C. has updated checklists for both new construction and existing buildings, allowing owners of old inefficient buildings to go through LEED v. 3. New technologies like super insulating curtain walls (which were on display at the Expo) and high-efficiency HVAC (heating & cooling systems) allow a building as old as the Empire State Building to become LEED-accredited.

LEED v. 3 has 3 major advances -- harmonization of checklists, credit weightings and most significantly Regional Priority Credits.

The LEED revamp included a detailed restructuring of HOW points are calculated. The previous congeries of different LEED systems for different project types has been "harmonized" to be more universal, with weighting given to the specific efficiency strategies that have the BIGGEST positive environmental impact. 

In other words, LEED has evolved out of an abstract checklist of points, and into a real weighting system tied to real impacts, in particular CO2 emissions. It also gives "extra credit" to strategies that have a particularly desirable impact in a climatic region (i.e. passive cooling in the desert southwest).

This marks a major turning point both in the standards that define "green building" as those standards inch closer each day to becoming a federal mandate. The federal government currently owns 139 certified LEED buildings and has an additional 1,560 registered projects, totaling over 263 million square feet.

One speaker at the Energy Expo said that if Obama wanted to really kick-start the green economy he should simply require the thousands of buildings currently operated by the DOE to become LEED-certified. This would create the demand necessary to scale (through private investment) the many great energy efficiency technologies that are currently available.

Rendering: Thom Mayne Architects, the San Francisco Federal Building

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