The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Investing in energy-saving features for your home today will pay off for decades to come

Capturing the sun’s renewable energy is ever more affordable and effective thanks to continually improving solar cell materials with higher electrical output. (iStock)

Building developers, owners and occupants are urged to reduce carbon emissions to battle climate change. Fossil fuel combustion, still the primary source of energy for human activity, is primarily responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

And real estate, the planet’s millions of buildings, consumes a significant amount of the world’s energy production. That energy not only cools, heats and lights buildings, it also electrically powers countless machines, appliances and personal devices.

Today’s building codes require energy-saving features in some new buildings. For example, D.C.’s 2006 Green Building Act mandates at least a silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating and certification for nonresidential buildings. Still, most existing real estate is not LEED-certified.

And according to scientists, despite current efforts, it will be very difficult to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently by 2050 to avoid “devastating consequences”: steadily warming climates and oceans, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, and increasingly extreme weather events occurring more frequently.

Environmental changes forecast over the next three decades — such as record-setting heat waves and droughts — are already well underway. Seriously threatened will be low-lying coastal areas and islands, natural habitats and wildlife, and global, national and regional economies, including agriculture.

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LEED awareness and goals are laudable. Yet metropolitan Washington property owners, and in particular homeowners, might wonder if individual, energy-driven actions can really make a meaningful difference in lowering carbon emissions and slowing climate change. Besides, with 2050 in the distant future, many people are preoccupied with today’s personal problems and resources demanding immediate attention.

Consequently, the value of investing today in energy-saving alterations for an existing home may seem questionable, even for people staying in place and decades away from moving or downsizing. They may doubt that the “devastating consequences” predicted will significantly affect their property, neighborhood and places they care about within metropolitan Washington. They may be skeptical about climate legislation ever being enacted, much less being effective.

People think this way because acting in the present to affect outcomes 30 years in the future is contrary to human nature. We humans are now-oriented, mostly concerned with making it through the week, month and year rather than worrying about 2050.

Regrettably, this very human trait plagues personal, political and business behavior. Short-term considerations, solutions and rewards drive most decision-making and action. Long-range, future-oriented pursuits — especially urban planning and costly architectural changes to reduce carbon emissions — are easily set aside or dismissed entirely.

However, your feelings and behavior could shift if you recognize and consider the personal benefits of energy-saving home alterations: investing now to save money in the long run; improving indoor comfort and health; and gaining emotional and ethical satisfaction knowing that you have at least helped a little bit.

Key alterations entail installing high-performance windows, insulation, mechanical equipment — including gas furnaces — and appliances. Additionally replacing incandescent, heat-wasting lightbulbs with long-lasting, low-wattage LEDs will substantially lower your electricity bill, as will increased use of natural daylight.

Where building orientation and sun exposure are favorable, installing solar panels to supply electricity is increasingly feasible and effective. In fact, capturing the sun’s renewable energy is ever more affordable and effective thanks to continually improving solar cell materials with higher electrical output. Researchers are likewise working to increase battery-storage capacity, essential to expanding the use of solar energy.

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Multiple energy-saving retrofits will substantially reduce your utility costs, ultimately repay your initial capital investment and increase future real estate value. They also will enhance indoor comfort and health. With an efficient HVAC system, wintertime heating/humidification and summertime cooling/dehumidification needs greatly diminish while ensuring continuous, healthful ventilation and air filtration.

Doing an energy-saving retrofit will provide emotional and ethical satisfaction, no matter how modest the impact on climate change. You can and should feel proud about creating and living in a zero-carbon home.

Nevertheless, skepticism about the planet’s environmental future is justifiable. Individual actions by individual real estate owners cannot solve climate change problems caused by carbon emissions. As scientists, engineers and environmental activists assert, effectively addressing climate change can be accomplished only through coordinated actions and investments at national and global scales.

One principal action is greatly increased use of renewable energy sources — sun and wind — to produce steadily growing supplies of much cheaper electricity. This ultimately means greatly reduced use of vehicles and other machines powered by fossil fuels. Other actions include more nuclear-generated electricity; augmented battery capacity for storing electricity; and, based on current research, using carbon-free hydrogen as a fuel.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the world’s nations are up to this daunting, long-range challenge, keeping in mind that 2050 in fact will be here sooner than we think.

Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park.

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