Investing in Energy Efficiency Pays Off

By David Bornstein, New York Times
February 6, 2015

A junior and senior economist are walking down the street. The junior one spots a $20 bill on the ground and says, “Hey, look, 20 dollars! Should I pick it up?” The senior economist replies: “Don’t bother. It can’t be real. If it were, someone would have taken it already.”

The idea that money is available for the taking defies economic logic. But sometimes it’s true. That’s the case with a vast opportunity that’s routinely overlooked by institutions across the country — from universities to hospitals, companies to governments.

Retrofitting buildings for energy conservation in the United States could save $1 trillion over a decade, reduce American greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, and spur employment across the country.

The opportunity is investing in energy efficiency. “The returns are tremendous, and there’s virtually no risk,” said Mark Orlowski, the founder and executive director of theSustainable Endowments Institute, an organization that is building a network to advance research, education and practical tools to help institutions, primarily universities and colleges, make investments that mitigate climate change.

Consider the example of Burton D. Morgan Hall, a 48,000-square-foot building completed in 2003 on the campus of Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Even though it’s only a decade old, energy conservation technologies have advanced so rapidly in recent years that significant savings were possible. In 2012, Jeremy King, Denison’s sustainability coordinator, explained, the college invested about $108,000 to install new sensor-controlled heating and cooling systems and energy efficient lighting throughout the facility. The combined savings from reduced gas and electric bills have remained roughly $28,000 per year, the initial estimate. (The rate for natural gas has gone down but electricity prices have increased.)

That’s less than a four-year payback. For investments in energy efficiency, it’s not an unusual return. And it’s low risk: unless the building is destroyed or the usage patterns change markedly — the energy savings will continue long after the principal is recovered.

Nationally, the potential savings from energy conservation investments are astounding. In a 2012 study, Deutsche Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation found that retrofitting buildings for energy conservation in the United States could save $1 trillion over a decade, reduce American greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, and spur employment across the country.

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