A new administration and a second chance for energy efficiency

It’s 2013. After thousands of years, the Mayan calendar has finally come to an end along with the 2012 presidential race. Of the estimated record $6 billion spent on the election, green got very little on-air coverage. In fact, one could say it all but died on the vine. Perhaps the Mayan Calendar was more foretelling than we thought.

I could only wince at a year-end cartoon that portrayed the current fiscal cliff crisis as just a warm-up act for Congress for the much more ominous “climate change cliff” lurking right around the corner. According to Angela Anderson, climate director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, climate change makes the current fiscal cliff look like a “crack in the sidewalk.”

As President Obama begins his second term, we have an opportunity to put green back on the agenda. After all, the president has repeatedly stated that action on climate change will be a second-term priority. And it has never been more important than now. In 2012, the U.S. easily surpassed the warmest year on record. That, coupled with a year of extreme weather events including Sandy, which literally hit home for me, is more than a wake-up call. Sandy’s price tag alone of $60 billion+ exceeds the entire annual budget of many federal departments. So yes, we need to hit the ground running as the inauguration takes place from where we left off in the president’s first term.

Let’s revisit a few of the first term initiatives. In his January 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama set a goal of reducing dependence on polluting fuels over the next quarter century. The plan’s central theme was to "Win the Future" through energy efficiency. In February 2011, the Better Buildings Initiative was announced with a goal to improve energy efficiency by 20 percent. In a speech at Penn State University launching the initiative, President Obama noted that energy-efficient buildings “may not sound too sexy,” but pointed out that “our homes and our businesses … contribute to 40 percent of the carbon pollution that we produce and that is contributing to climate change. It costs us billions of dollars in energy bills. They waste huge amounts of energy.” It was a call to action by the president.

This initiative included: New tax incentives for building efficiency, along with more financing opportunities for commercial retrofits. There was an announced focus on training the next generation of commercial building technology workers. And finally there was a challenge, a “race to green” for state and municipal governments that would streamline regulations and attract private investment for retrofit projects. This is a great example of the kind of comprehensive programs that needs to be back in the forefront.

So what will it take to get the public and our politicians to act on this? The answer lies in what a 20 percent efficiency in the built environment could mean, not just for the United States but also at a global level.

Innovation in building management, smart grid and transportation as well as how they converge to drive efficiency is key to many quality-of-life issues. Innovation for infrastructure includes a range of leading initiatives, from analytics to smarter sensor technologies and related algorithms. One great example is emerging in 2013, led by the GSA in collaboration with IBM to transform the 50 most energy-intensive federal buildings, including the White House. But this is just a beginning.

Leadership in this area will also require a new set of skills, driven by the convergence of digital and physical advances in the built environment. Top universities such as Carnegie-Mellon, Tulane, University of Arizona, Boston University and Columbia are beginning to lead the way as they create new cross-discipline majors. But this is still the early days -- a time that needs more industry collaboration and investment.

The challenge is clear, but so is the answer. This is not rocket science. This is very attainable with the right application of IT and communication technology along with focused programs and leadership at the state and federal levels.

We can get started today in both new construction and retrofits. There is an opportunity for every business, every university, and every homeowner to emerge as leaders in this space. Let’s work together to put green quickly back on the agenda and make it a real second-term priority.