According to the latest white paper from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, titled "Unlocking Ultra-Low Energy Performance in Existing Buildings," the United States is seeing a promising upward trend in ultra-low energy buildings (ULEBs). While much of this growth is occurring in new construction, the paper notes that growth is also occurring with existing buildings.

The paper defines ULEBs as "energy-efficient homes or commercial buildings that could, with the adoption of a renewable energy system, produce on average as much renewable energy as they use." To qualify as a ULEB, a home typically needs to be able to reduce energy intensity by 70 to 80 percent, while a commercial building must be able to do so by 60 to 70 percent.

According to the paper, today's buildings consume approximately 40 percent of all energy used in the United States. ULEBs represent a viable strategy for meeting clean energy goals and utility energy efficiency targets.

To date, ULEB policies and programs have focused on new construction, where opportunities to incorporate new construction techniques and equipment are easier, less disruptive and less expensive than retrofitting projects. However, according to the paper, expanding ULEB concepts and practices from new construction to existing buildings is an important step in transforming the buildings sector.

"It is estimated that more than half of the homes and buildings that will be in use in 2050 are already built and in use today," the report states. "Yet efforts to scale up retrofit activity in both the residential and commercial sectors lag far behind the market potential, even for standard retrofits that do not target deeper energy savings."

To further encourage the retrofit trend, the paper suggests a comprehensive set of complementary policies, programs and initiatives, along with strategic research. The following are some of these recommendations:

  • Set aggressive energy savings targets at the policy, program and project levels to create a strong impetus for action.
  • Leverage existing policies and programs to take advantage of existing infrastructure and relationships.
  • Establish the right requirements and carefully designed policy mandates and program rules to improve project outcomes and scale up ULEB retrofit activity.
  • Call on the community to help build broader and deeper commitment to retrofits.
  • Engage occupants to ensure better retrofit outcomes and building energy performance.
  • Conduct the necessary research to expand available solutions for more types of buildings.