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Building Efficiency: LEED Astray?


There is widespread consensus that the cheapest, fastest and easiest way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels (and greenhouse gas emissions) is energy efficiency. Yet another report, this time from the American Physical Society, explains this all in detail, showing how gasoline use in cars could be easily cut in half, and how all of America’s buildings in 2030 could get by on the same amount of energy buildings use today. “Most of the things we recommend have negative costs,” says study chair Burton Richter, Nobel Laureate and former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator.

One thing the report highlights, however, is the importance of standards and regulations, from appliance efficiency standards to building codes that require higher efficiencies. These standards have to be carefully designed. One of tantalizing details of the report (in the building section) is how one of the touted rating systems used today for buildings (called LEED certification) doesn’t make them as green as most people believe.

LEED stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”, and is a program run by the U.S. Green Building Council. The Council says that such buildings use 30% less energy than comparable non-green buildings. The APS study concluded, however, that the nation’s 121 LEED buildings actually use 30% more energy per square foot than the average for U.S. buildings.

Why the difference? “They used the median value for the LEED buildings and the mean for others,” explains Richter. Using the mean for both types significantly bumps up the ‘green’ buildings’ calculated energy use.

Of course, this doesn’t entirely settle the question. It may be that more of the LEED buildings are labs, data centers, or other types of energy hogs, compared to the nation’s average building. But it does lay bare the fact that LEED designation doesn’t have that much to do with energy efficiency – it only accounts for a small fraction of the criteria needed for LEED certification. “We think the weighting for energy efficiency should be greater” in the rating system, says Richter. Adds study vice-chair David Goldston: “People think LEED certification takes care of energy efficiency. But it doesn’t.”


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