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Inside NRDC

Conquering Our Invisible Energy Demons
Renovating old buildings can help curb global warming -- big time -- and put money back in owners' pockets

Photo of an Empty RoomWhere are you right now? Probably inside. And whether you're in an office, a towering apartment complex, a hospital, or your own house, the structure surrounding you is part of something very big: global warming. The energy used to power the buildings in which we live, work, and play is responsible for half of all global warming pollution emitted in the United States each year. That's nearly twice as much as all of our cars, trucks, planes, and trains combined. As vast as that problem may seem, many of the solutions are remarkably simple and low-tech.

Much of the attention paid to green buildings has been on new construction. Condominium developers and skyscraper architects are clamoring to be recognized by the U.S. Green Buildings Council with gold or platinum plaques for reducing energy consumption, recycling water, and using locally manufactured construction materials. But the vast majority of buildings that we'll be using 20 years from now exist today. The life expectancy of the average building is not so different from that of the average American -- and it's high time to put both on a rigorous energy diet.

Individual homeowners and renters can have an impact by making smarter, more energy-efficient choices such as purchasing Energy Star–rated appliances, replacing incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, and weather-stripping windows, to name just a few. But the owners and managers of large, energy-guzzling office buildings and other commercial structures also have a substantial role to play. The building you work in may need a tune-up just as much as your car does, and NRDC has launched a new effort to get the job done.

The commercial building sector's $120 billion annual energy tab could be slashed by one sixth -- that's $20 billion -- if owners and managers conducted regular checkups of basic equipment such as boilers, air conditioners, and air ducts, according to a recent study by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They found that a lot of energy is wasted due to simple oversight: running heating and cooling systems simultaneously, for example, heating water to a higher temperature than necessary, or blocking air ducts. Retuning, or recommissioning, a building's operational guts reduces its global warming footprint by an average of 15 percent, the study showed.

"That's money on the table," says Rick Duke, director of NRDC's Center for Market Innovation. Duke, who recently joined NRDC after six years at McKinsey & Company, a New York–based management consulting firm, was one of the authors of a landmark analysis of greenhouse gas reduction measures across every sector of the economy. The McKinsey study, which focused on Europe but has drawn the attention of policy makers around the world, found that many energy-reduction and emissions-cutting measures actually benefit a company's bottom line by reducing long-term costs. Top on the list: building insulation, lighting systems, air conditioning, and water heating.

Duke, along with Ashok Gupta, an NRDC economist and director of the organization's air and energy program, is advising companies that make operational decisions in the commercial buildings sector. This summer, NRDC announced a new collaboration with CB Richard Ellis, the nation's largest property management company, and began talks with commercial real estate owners including J.P.Morgan.

For some, the economic rewards may be even sweeter than the environmental ones: More efficient buildings have higher occupancy rates, according to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency. That means more rent comes in while operating costs go down, explains Duke, which in turn boosts the building's resale value. "A lot of emissions reduction measures in the commercial building sector really pay for themselves," he says.
-- Laura M. Wright

A Community's Health in Black and White

Photo of Sheila Holt-OrstedFive years ago, Sheila Holt-Orsted's father discovered he had prostate cancer. Then she found out that she had cancer, and her neighbor had it too. In fact, most of her street in rural Dickson County, Tennessee -- a quiet enclave of black families, many of whose forebears were freed slaves -- had at least one family member who was suffering from some form of cancer. They had something else in common: Their drinking water contained trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent that was seeping from the county landfill into their wells at levels that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's safety standards. Among the effects of TCE: neurological and cardiovascular damage, kidney and liver failure, and birth defects. The federal government lists it as a probable human carcinogen.

Today Holt-Orsted is embroiled in what promises to be one of the biggest environmental justice battles in recent history. Several years ago she discovered letters sent to white families instructing them to stop using their well water, around the same time that her family (whose water was tested and found to have unsafe TCE levels) was told everything would be fine. The Holts are one of several families that have sued the county, and in their civil rights case they are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Others have settled, taking what money was offered. For the Holts, there's something much bigger at stake: cleaning up.

So they turned to NRDC for help. This past summer, NRDC announced its intent to sue the county and city governments of Dickson as well as the companies that were primarily responsible for dumping the industrial solvent, for violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, calling for a comprehensive evaluation and cleanup of the toxic plume.
-- LMW

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L.A. to Poor: Take a Hike

Each day, some 500,000 Los Angeles residents climb aboard city buses to get to work, to school, or to the hospital; the median household income of those riders is just $12,000 a year. Over the next several years, bus fares are due to increase considerably, and the popular one-day pass will double in price, from $3 to $6. National transportation surveys show that for every 10 percent increase in fares, ridership drops by 4 percent. As ridership decreases, people are forced into cars, clogging city streets and increasing vehicle emissions, which contribute not only to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, but also to global warming. In April, just before the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority was about to approve the fare hikes, the local Bus Riders Union approached NRDC for help. The MTA had not conducted an environmental impact statement before approving the fare increases, a failure that prompted NRDC to sue the authority for violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. The case is due to be heard in Los Angeles County Superior Court this winter.
-- LMW

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Photos: Construction Photography/Corbis (top); Steve Jones (bottom)

OnEarth. Fall 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council