In 2009, awareness about the positive impacts of energy efficiency was raised to new heights. From President Obama's vision of energy efficiency stimulating job growth to U.S. Energy Secretary Chu calling himself "an energy conservation nut," the promise of energy efficiency solving a host of 21st century challenges became widely known.

What is less known is that energy efficiency was a central component of every one of the climate bills debated in Congress in 2009. And for good reason. With buildings responsible for 40 percent of the nation's energy consumption, the opportunity for significant savings is real. In fact, the USGBC estimates that greater building efficiency can meet 85 percent of future U.S. demand for energy, and a national commitment to green building has the potential to generate 2.5 million American jobs.

The concept of energy efficiency stands apart from other cleantech and green building initiatives in a very important way: It's relatively cheap. If you think about it, the cleanest and cheapest kilowatt of energy is the one never used. So even if there is an upfront cost to put efficiency measures into place, the return is never-ending. That means within a few months or years, you're putting money back into your pocket. That's a form of green we can all agree on.

With the new-found awareness of the potential of energy efficiency, 2010 promises to be a year of action. There are three key factors that get people to take action: incentives, funding and solutions that are proven to work.

Standards That Create Incentives

Incentives come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from local or federal legislation that mandates better efficiency, to building owners taking advantage of the marketing benefits that come with being LEED or Energy Star certified.

Whether or not a climate bill is passed in 2010, there are already 26 states and nearly a thousand U.S. cities that have environmental standards for new construction and retrofitting existing buildings.

LEED certification has also seen explosive growth in recent years. The 2009 Green Building Market and Impact Report found LEED registered green building activity has grown to a cumulative total of more than 7 billion square feet worldwide since the standard was launched in 2000 -- more than 40 percent growth in 2009. I believe these trends are here to stay.

Breaking Down Barriers to Funding

Funding is no longer the barrier it once was. Communities across America are applying for Department of Energy grants for use in a variety of commercial and residential efficiency programs. In addition, new creative financial programs are becoming available, such as the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) bond programs enacted in more than a dozen states in the past year.

Combine these programs with tax credits and utility rebates, and the opportunities for building owners are greater than ever before. Because of the savings efficiency provides, I believe we'll continue to see new financing options in the years ahead that will accelerate the adoption of efficiency programs.

Advanced Building Systems Technology

What's most exciting to me, however, is how new technologies are elevating the possibilities when it comes to efficiency. In 2009, we saw more examples than ever of information technology being applied to operating the physical environment, such as buildings.

This convergence -- sometimes called operations technology -- is transforming the way buildings are managed, and it's leading to unprecedented improvements in energy performance. Another important benefit of using technology to manage building systems is the ability to "see" what's happening, and use that information for maintenance and to ensure savings persist over time.

I believe there will be an increase in the rate at which new technologies are introduced, and as these technologies are proven to work, acceptance will grow, spurring faster adoption by the industry -- and opening up new business opportunities.

We're already seeing this within the controls contracting industry where they're building new revenue streams by expanding their energy services offerings to existing clients, helping those clients achieve real returns on their capital investments.

Efficiency achieved by applying new technologies equals job growth, energy security and saving green. That's a winning combination that I believe will grow exponentially in 2010 and the decade that follows.

Nathan Rothman, B.E.P., CSDP, is the founder and CEO of Optimum Energy LLC.

Images by
Robb Williamson, courtesy of NREL.