More Wishful Thinking on Green Buildings and Energy Retrofits
This fall, voters will be deciding on Referendum 52 which asks them to approve borrowing $500 million to fund "energy retrofits" for state buildings. The claim is the program will create jobs, like the federal stimulus program, and save money by improving the energy efficiency of the buildings. These programs have a mixed record and often are not audited to see if savings actually materialize.
The Sightline Institute, however, posted their initial "analysis" of the referendum this week and there are a couple of silly errors. Sightline writes that " found that investing in energy retrofits for our school buildings not only saves schools money, but it also improves student health and test scores."
First, they confuse "green" building with energy retrofits. The study is about schools built from the ground up using "green" building standards. It does not cover energy retrofits, which are small projects that replace individual light and energy systems in existing buildings.
In 2009, I testified before the legislature when it initially considered the energy-retrofits bill. I noted that energy savings projections were often wide of the mark, citing WPC's research on "green" buildings. We noted that energy retrofits are different from green buildings, but raised the point to urge caution when it comes to counting on energy savings in financial projections. That caveat was not enough for the bill sponsor. When the bill was considered again in 2010, I was walking up to testify when the sponsor of the bill warned me not to discuss "green" buildings since the bill had nothing to do with them. I wonder if that same warning will now be offered to Sightline.
There are studies that examine the results of energy-retrofit programs. You can read our blog post on the bill that became Referendum 52 and follow the links to the studies.
Second, the study cited by Sightline is written by an architecture firm that specializes in "green" buildings and fudges many of the numbers on energy and waste. For example, in the section highlighting the reduction in construction waste from refurbished buildings, they note that in an "informal survey of 6 LEED [green] buildings" they found that between 22 and 90 percent of the building was recycled. They conclude that "Using an average of these numbers yields a value of 56% of school construction waste that can be recycled." This is a very basic math error. The way to calculate an average is to add all six numbers together and then divide by six. What the architects did instead was find the average of only the high and low numbers.
They don't provide all six numbers in the document, so the real average is a mystery. If most of the numbers are closer to the 22 percent, the actual average will be lower. Conversely, if most of the numbers are closer to the 90 percent, the average will be higher. Given the obvious bias of the report, however, I can guess what the reality probably is. In any case, this is a simple and embarrassing math error.
There are many other errors and the projections from the 2005 report have come nowhere close to the actual performance of the schools during the past five years.
Much of Washington's environmental policy is adopted with the assumption it will work, but no effort is made to compare the actual results to the promises. This betrays the reality that the real value of those policies is political, not the benefit (or harm) to the environment. If we truly care about the environment, we should audit rigorously and ensure that we are getting the environmental benefits we were promised. Sightline's first cut at Referendum 52 skips the audit in favor of wishful thinking.