Radical Confidence: No Accident

Radical Confidence: No Accident

Japan's decision to put a moratorium on new construction of nuclear power plants, indeed considering shuttering all nuclear power plants -- a move that would affect 30 percent of the country's electricity generation -- has me thinking about the role of Intention as it regards the success of sustainability.

My experience in sustainability programs that work, having observed this for more than 25 years, is that those that are successful are very consciously designed and involve both a required element and an incentive element. Programs that rely exclusively on a mandatory elements, for example minimum building codes, are successful at raising the floor but do very little to promote continuous improvement, even if they are on a regular revision schedule.

On the other hand, purely incentive-based programs, such as increasing energy prices or providing rebates similarly have significant limitations in their ability to penetrate the mass market.

On the other hand, approaches that involve a stringent, and continuously improving, minimum requirement that is complemented by incentive programs to encourage early adoption of the continually rising floor and uses incentives to promote performance levels above the minimum, tend to have synergistic performance effects.

One of the things that is very encouraging about the discussion regarding Japan's possible nuclear moratorium is that it is happening at all. Perhaps not surprisingly, the media coverage of this bold initiative is focusing on what kinds of supply alternatives will be used to replace the nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, it is this exact type of siloed thinking that often prevents the most effective solutions from being implemented.

So far, the mention of energy efficiency has been limited to perhaps a sentence or two punctuated by an embarrassed cough that it's even being discussed: We all know that real men build energy supply.

It might seem ironic that energy efficiency ought to be the cornerstone of this nuclear replacement strategy in the world's most efficient economy. Interestingly, though, the buildings sector is the only one in which Japan's efforts have fallen somewhat short compared to its Herculean efforts in industry and transportation sectors, whose energy use has dropped dramatically over the last 40 years.

As we noted in this space a few weeks ago, saying "No" is often one of the most effective tools for catalyzing change. If Japan does in fact say no to nuclear power, then their backs are really up against the wall: how will they be able to workplace 30 percent of the energy services? (Note this very critical, yet subtly different way of posing the issue: energy services versus energy supply.)

When you look at energy services versus energy commodities -- kilowatt-hours, therms, gallons of oil or gasoline -- all of a sudden you force yourself to look both on the supply side and on the demand side, which then -- if you are thinking clearly -- forces you to consider the kinds of integrated programs mentioned above.

Lest anyone think that this is simply one person's experience based on limited data points, consider that the World Business Council for Sustainable Development -- whose member roster contains several of the world's largest corporations -- last year completed a very comprehensive study called Vision 2050 that essentially reached the same conclusions.

This study was based on extensive computer modeling which linked both technological and program structure issues along with economic issues. The goal of the Vision 2050 exercise was to see if by that date we could achieve, or even get close to, the 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions that most scientists agree are necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The surprising/not so surprising answer was yes, if you combine a rigorous mandatory energy efficiency regime with powerful financial incentives to support and extend those mandatory requirements then, in fact, you can achieve this radical level of improvement. But let me emphasize: following this approach is not an accident. It is conscious, it is directed.

You can whine all you want about social engineering but the interference in peoples' daily lives from this kind conscious approach certainly cannot be less than what we are seeing in the profound disruptions caused by business and government in its current "free market" configuration. I always have been baffled by the hue and cry over adding a few cents to the gasoline tax when over the span of a few months we can easily see price fluctuations of a dollar or more as result of the "market."

Recently released energy efficiency indicators report from the Institute for Building Efficiency shows that energy efficiency is very two extremely important for over 60 percent of business respondents in Europe. "Over 60 percent" sounds like a lot but when you consider that energy prices in Europe are 2 to 3 times higher than those in America you get a sense of how far things need to go in order to make this ecological imperative happen at the scale, scope and speed necessary to make the change.

Of course, the missing link in this is the government regulatory regime, which dramatically increases the energy efficiency requirements and directs support to businesses and consumers in making the transition through the use of incentive programs that are not only widely available but sufficient to overcome the practical and entrenched institutional barriers.

All is not lost, however, as the blog post from Chip Pieper notes, there is a white knight on the horizon in the form of profoundly sophisticated and effective IT tools that will help building designers, builders and operators achieve building sustainability.

One of my favorite paradoxical phrases in the English language was coined by the famous cartoonist Walter Kelly, author and illustrator of the Pogo strip: "We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities". The humor and paradox in this statement is not unlike the joke about the economist grandfather who refuses to pick up the $20 bill because it's not "real." Kelly was referring to humans' bizarre reluctance to do what's good for us, even in the face of all evidence.

Photo CC-licensed by xuexueg.