Creating Battalions of Green Jobs: Upgrading Buildings

 Photo: Doug strickland

Photo: Doug strickland

by Justine Burt

Ramping up the pace of building efficiency retrofits would create battalions of green jobs. In light of job outsourcing over the past few decades and the coming mass automation of routine work tasks, by contrast, green building retrofits must be done by humans here in the U.S. Clearly we cannot ship our buildings to Mexico or China to have the walls superinsulated, the air handling systems replaced and solar panels installed. 

Take a look at how much solar energy has been installed in the U.S. recently.

FIgure: U.S. Solar Installations 2000-2016

While installation of solar has growth dramatically just in the past year, there is still much work needed to retrofit all U.S. buildings to use clean local energy efficiently. Here are three ambitious green building retrofit project areas that will create a massive number of jobs.

1.      Retrofit residential buildings for solar, energy efficiency and water conservation

Net zero energy means the building generates as much energy from on-site renewables as it consumes. The process of going net zero includes:

  • installing energy efficient lights
  • installing more efficient heating/cooling systems
  • reducing energy demand from plug-loads (appliances and equipment that plug into an outlet)
  • installing an equivalent amount of on-site renewable energy (solar, ground source heat pumps) to meet the reduced energy demand.

(Note that fuel switching from natural gas to electric for space heating and water heating is a key part of reducing a building's carbon footprint as people seek to realize net zero energy.)

While teams are already on the property, also doing water conservation retrofits makes sense. Opportunities include changing fixtures and equipment in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and gardens. In climates that don't see rain for several months at a time, piping washing machine water to irrigate trees below ground is the easiest greywater retrofit.  

Scope of residential retrofits project

How big a job would it be to retrofit all homes for net zero energy and water conservation by 2030? According to the U.S. Census, in 2010 there were 12.5 million occupied housing units in California. Currently about 5% of residences in California have solar panels installed. In the U.S. overall, there are 116.7 million occupied housing units. A woefully small fraction of 1% of U.S. residences are net zero energy: the number is in the hundreds.

To zero in on the target number, check out this California Energy Commission (CEC) graphic. In 2016 the CEC passed new Title 24 energy efficiency standards which went into effect January 1, 2017. They estimate that 9 million single-family homes and 3.1 million multi-family buildings will be covered by these new energy efficiency standards. A large portion of those would save on their energy bills by upgrading.

2.      Retrofit commercial and industrial buildings for solar, energy efficiency and water conservation

A similar story about the opportunities for energy efficiency and water conservation is playing out in the commercial building sector. A small fraction of 1% of commercial buildings are net zero energy certified. The CEC identified 600,000 commercial buildings in California that need to be retrofitted. More broadly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are 6 million commercial buildings and industrial facilities in the U.S. EPA’s Energy Star program has only certified 25,000 for energy efficiency. 

One of the greatest challenges to retrofitting existing commercial space for net zero energy is that a majority of businesses rent space from commercial property owners. In many cases, the tenant pays the energy bill and would like to reduce their energy bill but are hesitant to invest in a building they do not own. Forward-thinking commercial property owners invest in net zero energy upgrades to make the property more attractive to current or future tenants. The key to successfully splitting the costs and savings between property owner and tenant is hiring a savvy attorney to write up a green lease.

3.      Replace dirty diesel back-up generators at hospitals and municipalities with solar emergency microgrids

A third important green building retrofit project that some municipalities and hospitals are planning has to do with replacing their dirty diesel back-up generators. During power outages, every building that provides emergency services during a natural disaster needs back-up power. Diesel generators are a problem because they not only emit air pollutants in the event of a natural disaster but also when run during regular testing. This may be as often as once or twice a month for 30 minutes.

Solar emergency microgrids offer a cleaner alternative. Batteries and solar panels sized for the local climate can provide reliable back-up power to hospitals and municipalities. Hospitals are currently planning which portions of their operations need to run in the event of an emergency, such as emergency rooms and operating rooms. The size of this potential project in California includes all 345 hospitals in the state.

At the city level, each municipality has back-up generators as well. Every municipality has emergency response plans to serve the public in the event of a natural disaster. Police and fire departments serve critical needs by responding to requests for assistance and need reliable back-up power. Solar emergency microgrids could provide this reliability with batteries and solar systems sized for the worst historical weather events. Then during a natural disaster each emergency response center, often at the fire station or police station, can disconnect from the electrical grid and still can function as needed. There are 482 municipalities in California that are starting to look at solar emergency microgrids as a cleaner way to meet emergency back-up power needs.

Level of Effort

If we set our sights on retrofitting buildings in California for net zero energy, by 2030 we would upgrade up to 12 million residences and 600,000 commercial buildings. Replacing dirty diesel back-up generators with solar emergency microgrids for each of California’s 345 hospitals and 482 municipalities would upgrade our state’s emergency response capabilities with clean local energy. In the process of building the sustainable future we need, we would not only create field construction jobs but also the administration, sales, engineering and management jobs that support the field workers. The complimentary benefits of creating meaningful middle class jobs will be stabilizing the Earth’s climate as we transition away from fossil fuels, and giving investors a place to park their money that will yield competitive returns.