Unsustainable “Sustainability”

On Wednesday, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (specifically the Brazil Institute) sponsored a summit on “Sustainable Solutions for the Planet’s Energy Challenge.” In this seminar, Mr. Greg Kats (the other speaker was absent) suggested measures in order to mitigate movement toward zero net energy via carbon buildings and cities.


Many interesting measures and objectives were proposed to endorse this final goal. First, by investment in wind and solar, it was suggested the viable alternatives in current energy protocol are finally attainable, in what Kats named “the golden age of green energy.” Wind power, the fastest growing niche to renewable power, encompasses 35% of new generation energy production, regardless of receiving fewer cumulative subsidies than fossil fuels. In conjunction, wind encompasses 75% of wind is used for replacement in buildings, and since 40% of annual energy expenditure is associated with buildings (including their heating, cooling, etc.), this comprises a very real figure in terms of energy expenditure. Therefore, what were Kats’ sustainable solutions? To build LEED certified (or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings is the primary argument. First, it was suggested approximately 2% (maximum of 4%) increases in price were necessary to construct the LEED buildings, as compared to public misperceptions ranging closer to 17%. This represents an analysis building a figure of minimum cost while maintaining LEED certification; in other words, this is added cost to the minimum costs already in place.  In conjunction, this cost is offset simply in utilities in 20 years, showing savings of between 7.5-10% in direct energy savings, and as high as 11% when water savings are included. These prices are not adjusted for inflation, and therefore represent true value of the actual savings, which would result of potentially many percent more saved, come 2032. In conjunction, the added impact in terms of cofactors, including health, indirect energy savings, and employment account for nearly 14-17% during this same period. Simply put, double digit percent mitigation of costs cause for real benefits of these systems when paying for initial infrastructure premiums. Protocol for these energy reduction measures were followed by explanations of some micro-project energy loss mitigation techniques, and shown to be quite useful in terms of turnover of profit. One such example for these micromanagement energy loss techniques were the replacement of windows with more energy insulating brands. Mr. Kats closed with optimistic remarks, showing how when linked to the reduction of Green House Gases, these figures of LEED certification amount to nearly $800 billion dollars in net savings.


Simply put: how? I think that sustainable solutions to real problems make sense. If Starbucks offered true incentives to customers (i.e. 1/3 off coffee products with the use of a reusable mug in order to mitigate the cost of actually purchasing a $12 tumbler as opposed to a lousy 10 cent return per purchase, which amounts to over 30 lattes before the tumbler even pays for itself, assuming just coffee consumption in the tumbler) then the actual issue of paper cup generation would not be an issue, and free market correction via private/public intervention would make sense as a suitable solution to this problem. This being said, it’s not happening, as these alternatives are not as economically viable. Is it worth 3 dollars a month to carry an extra thing in to the office? Not really, no. Especially when those 3 dollars only amounts to 36 dollars a year. It’s simply not worth the inconvenience to purchase and then use an extra function. This is the problem with wind energy: if the government offered true incentives to people to purchase these in the forms of tax credits, as opposed to reducing petroleum prices, citizens would be more likely to buy in to the green initiative. Yes, in 20 years, these products can outweigh their initial premiums, and even bring returns cost. “This is why you should buy them” seems all too optimistic. EPA and DoE revamp energy heating and cooling systems every 5-8 years, and therefore some of these costs associated with the purchase could be lost if the system is considered outdated. How long do these systems also work before a need for replacement/fixation? Do these systems actually reduce carbon emissions when factoring in the creation of all the parts (I would assume fossil fuel combustion is necessary for the creation of these systems)?


Also, in terms of these true costs, how are these medical cofactors evaluated? I feel as though when reviewing the EPA data on cofactors, the true impact of a chemical’s acute or chronic toxicity could be evaluated. Here, though, building sustainability impacting health seems like a qualitatively quantifiable figure, as opposed to an objectively unbiased estimate of cost associated with health impacting the average worker. I truly am curious how these costs really amount to the true values of those associated with benefit in the coming years, especially with both replacement of capital and the overinflating of cofactors.  Perhaps we aren’t in the “Golden Age of Renewables” as once said by Mr. Kats, himself.


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