Going Green in a Down Economy

June 8, 2009
With businesses doing all they can to survive, going green can seem unaffordable – but, initiatives can pay off, even in this economy

Given today’s economy, it seems only natural that companies would want to focus more on the bottom line and less on perceived “extras,” such as green building. With businesses doing all they can to survive, going green can seem unaffordable.

But, planning and implementing green building initiatives – especially those that save energy and water – can pay off, even in this economy. And, just as people are advised to think about investing over the long term in the stock market rather than panicking at every uptick and downtick, investing in green building is part of a long-term strategy. Yes, investments in green building pay off today; more importantly, they pay off more tomorrow.

So, what should a business think about if it wants to invest in building a green facility in a time of down markets and tight credit? Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t view capital and operating budgets in isolation. The “green premium” that says it costs more to build a sustainable building is still being debated, but even a slight cost increase is recouped in a few months or years via reduced operating expenses over the long term. This fact is often overlooked because the people responsible for building a facility aren’t responsible for operating it. Decisions about investing in energy efficiency need to be made high enough up in the company to break up the organizational silo and fully reap the benefits of green building.
  2. Investigate and access the right incentives. There are many ways to partially finance investments in green building. Performance contracting, for example, allows a third party to install equipment on your behalf and assume the risk and paybacks of a green building investment. This is a great way to make big energy-efficiency or renewable-energy investments without having to pay the upfront costs. At the end of the contract, the building owner assumes the improvements and gets the benefits of ongoing energy savings. In addition, many utilities offer incentives to larger customers to install energy-saving building technologies and equipment. Local, state, and federal governments offer tax credits to spur investments in energy and water savings as well. The key to success is that your design team knows where and how to access these programs on your behalf.
  3. Prepare for efforts to curb climate change. It’s clear that climate-change regulation is coming. In Washington and many states, there are ongoing discussions about establishing a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse-gas emissions. Such a system would require companies to buy tradable permits to emit greenhouse gases over a certain threshold, and that threshold would be lowered from year to year. Designing and constructing energy-efficient facilities allows you to mitigate the risks associated with new regulations and policies as they unfold – to be “ahead of the pack.” Many large businesses are already lobbying for coordinated regulatory efforts at the national level through groups like the U.S. Climate Action Partnership.
  4. Pick the low-hanging fruit. Make sure your building only uses the energy it needs. Lights, computers, and servers are often running 24/7, but aren’t always needed, which drains energy and money. Make sure someone in your company takes responsibility for your energy load and turns off the equipment and lighting that isn’t needed. Consider installing automatic controls that will turn lighting, HVAC, and other systems off when a room is unused. Last, make sure you maximize the operation of your building and your equipment so you’re getting as much out of it as possible, and so that it all runs at full capacity. Building commissioning and re-commissioning are helpful.
  5. Integrate your design. To optimize the function of a new building, the design team (architects, engineers, builders, and you) needs to work together from the very beginning – it’s the only way to guarantee that all the equipment and features of your building will work as efficiently and effectively as possible. Your lighting, HVAC, building orientation, materials, and landscaping can work toward conserving as many resources (and as much money) as possible, or they can work against you. The only way to make sure you’re maximizing your benefit is to design that efficiency in at the very beginning of the process.

Arash Guity is the chief climate change engineer at Mazzetti Nash Lipsey Burch, a San Francisco-based engineering and consulting firm.

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