March 4 2014

Green Building Certification Program LEEDs from Behind

National Review Online

Jillian Kay Melchior

District of Columbia buildings with a special green certification used more energy per square foot than buildings that lacked it, according to new research from the Environmental Policy Alliance.

The report examined energy-usage statistics released by the city’s Department of the Environment, analyzing the data for hundreds of privately owned structures. It compared non-certified buildings with those that participated in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Created by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED’s goal is to help buildings lower their carbon footprint.

D.C. leads the nation in the number of LEED buildings per capita, and the city has also mandated the use of LEED standards for many of the new public and private buildings being constructed.

Environmental Policy Alliance research analyst Anastasia Swearingen says, “We found that, on average, LEED-certified buildings actually perform worse than traditional buildings when it comes to energy usage.”

Swearington’s research looks only at energy-use intensity (EUI), a specific metric that measures how much energy is used for each unit of building space. LEED-certified buildings had an average EUI of 205, while non-LEED buildings averaged 199, she reports.

Similar research conducted by the Washington Examiner last year found that “a high rating in the prestigious LEED certification program may bear little relation to actual greenhouse gas emissions of New York office towers.”

But Scot Horst, the senior vice president of LEED at the U.S. Green Buildings Council, says examining EUI alone presents a skewed perspective.

“What it tells you is how much energy is being used,” Horst says. “It doesn’t tell whether the space is being used efficiently. We know that we don’t want to incentivize empty buildings—Detroit would have the best EUI ever. We want buildings that are being used incredibly well that use the smallest amount of energy for the highest amount of use.”

Horst says that the ENERGY STAR ratings established by the Environmental Protection Agency offer a better way of determining efficiency, factoring in not only EUI but several other metrics, too. When that standard is used, D.C. commercial buildings score in the 77th percentile nationwide for energy efficiency, in large part because of the LEED program, Horst says.

The General Services Administration has reported that high-performance green buildings—a category that includes not only LEED certifications but other energy-efficiency programs—saw lower costs and energy consumption.

Swearington, the researcher for the Environmental Policy Alliance, says LEED certification relies too heavily on a computer-modeled building plan that may not actually reflect real-life energy usage.

Furthermore, not everything that wins a building LEED points actually deals with direct energy use, she says. For example, buildings can get LEED points from installing bike racks or decreasing the number of available parking spaces.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum.

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