Energy-Efficient Buildings Are Central to Modernizing U.S. Infrastructure

A man oversees the bake-out process on a new "acandescent" lightbulb in Woburn, Massachusetts, March 2014.

If roads, bridges, and phone and transmission lines are the veins of American infrastructure, buildings are the heart. Whether residential or commercially owned, the buildings that serve as places of work and living in the United States unquestionably shape public health, safety, and economic productivity. As buildings’ multiplying energy needs increasingly force their integration into the United States’ energy grid, it has become necessary to update building practices and technologies accordingly. These updates should minimize energy leakage and make greater use of each unit of energy consumed.

By upgrading energy efficiency in buildings, the United States can realistically lower energy costs for consumers, encourage job growth, and reduce energy-related pollution and carbon emissions. Buildings present a vast opportunity for Congress to revitalize the core of U.S. infrastructure and improve communities across the country.

Energy efficiency policy targets in a progressive U.S. infrastructure package

Although the energy efficiency space has seen mounting gains over the past several decades, the United States still has vast untapped efficiency potential that current and emerging energy technologies can activate. Currently, the building sector is the largest energy consumer in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Quadrennial Technology Review, implementing the best available energy efficiency technologies in the country’s existing building stock would result in a 50 percent reduction in residential energy consumption and a 46 percent reduction in commercial consumption. The most energy consumptive services in residential and commercial buildings include space heating and cooling, water heating, and lighting. Improvements in HVAC standards, stronger building envelope insulation, and proliferation of technologies such as heat pumps, LED lightbulbs, and efficient appliances are at the forefront of realizing buildings’ energy efficiency potential.

All federal investments in buildings should lower buildings’ energy use while maintaining or enhancing levels of service and realizing additional benefits for citizens, the environment, and the economy. A progressive infrastructure plan should include a commitment to greater energy efficiency in buildings as a means to:

  1. Save consumers money on their energy bills by decreasing household demand without sacrificing level and quality of service
  2. Create additional, well-paying, and sustainable jobs in the burgeoning energy efficiency sector
  3. Improve public health by shifting reliance away from polluting sources of energy generation and by making deep carbon-emissions cuts on a national scale by reducing fossil-fuel demand

Reductions in consumers’ energy bills

Several federal-level energy efficiency programs have already successfully saved consumers on their energy expenditures. Still, each year, Americans spend more than $400 billion to power their homes and workplaces. In 2015, residential energy consumption alone cost approximately $1,856 per household and $219 billion in total nationwide. With expedited improvements in energy efficiency standards, buildings’ energy expenditures would decrease, keeping more money in the pockets of individuals and small businesses. Further lowering barriers to energy efficiency is not only a way to decrease energy costs for most consumers, but a compelling avenue to greater energy burden parity between disparate demographics.

Indeed, the financial burden of energy expenditures in the United States’ residential building sector falls disproportionately on lower-income Americans and historically underserved populations. Energy insecurity, defined as the inability to meet basic household energy demand, is a known precursor to discomfort and poor health—depressing the standard of living and productivity in households already struggling to make ends meet. In 2015, one-third of American households found it difficult to pay their energy bills, while one-fifth reported forgoing food, medicine, and other basic necessities in order to fulfill this payment.

In particular, African American and Latino households shoulder disproportionately high energy burdens. By simply updating their home efficiency standards to the U.S. median, African American households could potentially save 42 percent on their excess energy burdens, while Latino households could save 68 percent. Renters, multifamily households, and rural households also pay a larger percentage of their income toward energy bills than the average American—another underacknowledged disparity. A more progressive energy efficiency policy has de facto potential to ease the financial burdens of the United States’ most underserved populations, and legislators should consider designing policies that specifically retain those implicit savings.

Potential for employment in the energy efficiency sector

Energy efficiency policy produces benefits beyond savings for energy consumers; it also provides sustainable, skilled jobs for Americans across all states and energy markets and at many levels of associated supply chains. As of 2018, 2.25 million Americans were employed in the energy efficiency sector across all 50 states. In 2017, the sector had 1,274,975 filled jobs in construction, 449,799 filled jobs in professional and business services, 315,578 filled jobs in manufacturing, and 167,492 filled jobs in wholesale trade, distribution, and transport.

With 70 percent of energy efficiency jobs provided by small businesses and a strong domestic manufacturing presence for energy-efficient equipment, expanding energy efficiency policy for buildings would be an easy win for American employment. While often touted as the low-hanging fruit of green energy policy, energy efficiency is no small endeavor at the labor level; millions of Americans are already hard at work making U.S. buildings more energy-efficient. This existing employment framework ensures that pursuing energy efficiency in buildings is a sensible and reliable way to boost domestic employment.

Reductions in pollution and carbon emissions

An often overlooked yet vital aspect of infrastructure is the connection between buildings, the environment, and public health. There is tremendous potential for energy efficiency to better public health outcomes across the country by greatly reducing energy-related air pollution while also improving the insulation of buildings—a safeguard against common allergens, moisture-related illnesses, and thermal stress. By reducing the amount of energy generation required to maintain the same level of energy service in buildings, energy efficiency measures reduce the amount of particulate matter and irritant gases that fossil fuel-burning power plants produce—including pollutants such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and soot. Studies suggest that air pollution causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year in the United States and contributes to serious and increasingly common afflictions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Moreover, power plant emissions are not only directly harmful to those who breathe them in, but they also negatively contribute to public health and the environment by entering water resources, ecosystems, and the food chain.

In addition to traditional pollution reduction, scaling energy efficiency in buildings to their potential could make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions despite the United States’ growing population and economy. Thus, strong and timely energy efficiency targets can help the country avoid some of the worst environmental, economic, and social outcomes of climate change. Ambitious energy efficiency targets can reduce harmful emissions that result from current methods of energy generation, which should be a compelling reason for action.

Conclusion

Energy-efficient buildings can lay a foundation for cleaner, stronger, and more equitable infrastructure. The varied, cross-disciplinary benefits of energy efficiency have made past efficiency policies and programs popular among legislators, market actors, and the American people. These efforts have resulted in blueprints for more ambitious efficiency targets at the federal level. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program—a labelling program encouraging greater energy efficiency standards for products and buildings—touts significant market penetration, sustained industry support, and a high rate of consumer brand recognition. Among its successes with various stakeholders, Energy Star is also the largest single energy efficiency technology application employer in the country and successfully reduces energy demand and costs in participating households.

Offering varied benefits to a range of stakeholders, ambitious energy efficiency measures can rally bipartisan constituencies toward improving communities across the country, and they should be championed as an important component of a healthy, low-emitting building stock. U.S. residents need lasting jobs, cleaner air, and fewer barriers to economic mobility. Energy-efficient infrastructure has significant potential to simultaneously address these needs.

Bianca Majumder is a research associate for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. Luke Bassett is the associate director of Domestic Energy and Environment Policy at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Meghan Miller and Christian Rodriguez for their contributions to this column.