Letters – 2009-08-01

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer staff August 1, 2009

Europeans versus Americans on energy

Energy taxes are needed

Europeans have placed large taxes on energy for decades recognizing the other impacts (costs) of energy use beyond the extraction, processing, and delivery costs. We need to get serious about gradually applying energy taxes here and efficiently direct their use toward energy-saving technologies.


Demographics and climate change

I’m an American HVAC engineer who’s been working in the U.K. for a while. You’re absolutely right—our energy use per capita is appalling compared to other developed nations (i.e., European Union countries and Japan). However, our performance to data is defensible, and I’d like to say why based on my observations. First, European countries and Japan are much smaller and more densely populated than the U.S. The population density in the U.K., for instance, is about five times that of the U.S. I’m pretty sure Japan is at least as much or more.

Since it’s so densely populated in Europe, people live a lot closer together and real estate is in higher demand. This makes the average sq ft/person available in the building stock lower, which uses less energy on average. Europeans also have had to deal with pollution like smog and overcapacity landfills for decades longer than we have in the U.S. In the buildings industry, it is much more regulated over here (in Europe). This is a major cost to development. If a building costs $10 million in the U.S., it would cost about 10 million pounds in the U.K. or more—it’s that expensive. Our path thus far in the U.S is a direct result of our prosperity and ingenuity mixed with ample space.

Another major reason Europe performs better is that they’ve done a much better job of winning hearts and minds regarding climate change. They’ve taken it very seriously and haven’t waited for the U.S. to come around. They’re off and running on emissions trading schemes and renewable contribution targets. I don’t know about how well they maintain building systems here compared to America (I haven’t noticed a big difference in quality), but it may be due to more heavy-handed regulation. I know they have major issues with old legacy buildings (Victorian concrete block walls with air gap and brick veneer) that have no insulation. The average U.S. building is much younger and more likely to have some insulation, however poor.

America may be a bit behind on energy, but we’re catching up quickly. We have many of the world’s great manufacturers for buildings, and our entrepreneurial capital in green and renewable energy companies is second to none. It’s just time to hit the red button and start implementing.


Policy failures

There is a simple reason we are behind the Europeans in energy—public policy. While Jimmy Carter had his eye on the ball, the next four presidents didn’t. Even Al Gore’s term in the White House shotgun seat gave us little to show as far as energy progress. When Ronald Reagan gleefully pulled Carter’s solar panels off of the White House, that symbolized the next 20 years of the Energy Dark Ages. Public policy, in terms of NREL funding, solar tax credits, green public buildings, and public transportation, was negative on energy conservation. A bright spot is California, where public policy required conservation. The average Californian uses half the utility power that the average American does, as a result of consistent investments in energy efficiency.


Leapfrog the Europeans

I believe all of the readers have ignored the essential point of Michael Ivanovich’s article, spending too much time justifying and rationalizing the U.S. versus European Union debate. The point is that Americans had better keep a sharp eye on Europe. There’s no point advancing our renewable energy plans if we don’t learn from them, or understand where they’ve obviously excelled.

It’s a rule in any business—make friends with your enemies, so you can keep a close eye on them. Only a foolish American would nowadays think we’re simply better than the world—our U.S. CEOs all pledged and sought a global economy, and these are the consequences.


World War II impacts

Other differences include the post-World War II economic difficulties in Europe, which led to smaller cars and increased used of bicycles; and the post-World War II suburban sprawl in America and a 1950s American philosophy (which still persists) that there’s nothing Mother Nature could do that we couldn’t engineer better. This led us to seal up all our office buildings and malls and airports and data centers, so you have to run the air conditioning even on nice cool days, instead of just walking over and opening up the window like they do in Europe.


It’s a lot of things

As a Brit working in the U.S., my take on the differences is very much about energy cost and taxation—simple supply and demand. We saw the effect of this on gas usage in the U.S. last year; when consumption of gas fell when the price rose to $4+ /gal, people started dumping their SUVs on the realization of the high cost of running inefficient vehicles. The conditions of high cost and high taxes have been in place for a long time in Europe and were driven higher when the government signed up for carbon reduction as signatories to the Kyoto protocols. The cost of land and the close proximity of countries and cities has meant for a long time that the huge vehicles used in the U.S. were irrelevant in Europe, so small cars have been popular for a long time. Sure, the Americans have got some catching up to do, but there is an opportunity to catch up quickly as new technologies are maturing quickly that will enable rapid gains to be made.


Not so fast

Before making comparisons and coming to conclusions, we should look at the facts, and I have not seen any comparisons, such as with CBECS (The U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey database). England claims to be much further along on the path to sustainability and zero carbon. Our contemporaries there get much higher fees and have far more laws and regulations than we do on these issues. Following are some quotes in the CIBSE Journal this spring from prominent CIBSE members and past presidents. They are not mine:

"The design intent has not been managed through the procurement process and into use. Buildings are being used more than the designers anticipated. Systems are too complicated and baffle the users and management. Controls don’t work and things are left switched on. The basis for the design is often flawed; we just do not have the right type of guidance. The building services sector must embrace operational and facilities management. Being able to access data on the performance of buildings is a crucial step in monitoring energy efficiency. The building services sector has been failing clients for too long when it comes to energy efficiency and performance outcomes. For all the intention that goes into building design at the moment, the reality is completely different."

At least in England those who publish in the CIBSE Journal have fortitude to admit their failures to achieve sustainability and describe some of the reasons why. Why are our journals not doing that, too?



Send your letters to Michael Ivanovich, editor-in-chief, Consulting-Specifying Engineer , 2000 Clearwater Drive, Oak Brook, IL 60523, or via e-mail to michael.ivanovich@reedbusiness.com .

Letters should be no longer than 200 words, and may be edited for space, style, spelling, and grammar.