Green building retrofits

Jeff vonKaenel

You had to be impressed with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s timing when he told a group of locals last week—on the heels of the Proposition 8 ruling—that the topic of gay marriage was nowhere near as controversial in his town as the subject of mandatory composting. In case you didn’t know, last fall San Francisco became the first city in the nation to require people to compost their organic waste. Newsom spoke at Mayor Kevin Johnson’s monthly Greenwise meeting, where approximately 400 Sacramento-area residents gathered to discuss how to make our region more green.

He told us about his campaigns for eliminating bottled water and plastic bags, converting the city fleet and taxi cabs into energy-efficient vehicles, and having the city buses run on biofuel. But at the heart of Newsom’s remarks was the insight that retrofitting buildings to reduce their energy consumption is key to any worthy sustainability campaign. More than one-third of North America’s greenhouse gases come from buildings; more eco-friendly buildings could reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 25 percent.

Newsom’s plan is a little complicated, but it could dramatically transform both our economy and the environment. He explained that several trillion dollars sit dormant in corporate accounts and in bank portfolios, because corporations cannot find safe things to invest in. Because corporations are not investing, new jobs are not being created. People without jobs don’t spend money. How do we break out of this cycle?

One option would be to inject money into the economy, but increased government spending is a tough sell in the current political climate. Instead, Newsom proposes that the government guarantee bank loans for retrofitting buildings. Just as the Small Business Administration loan program guarantees bank loans for small businesses, a program like this could win political support, because it would inject money into a community with less risk to the private sector.

And most people support job creation. If you want to invest in new energy sources, you might ask, “What kind of investments would create the most American jobs?” Newsom said that if you invested $1 billion in coal, this investment would create around 780 jobs. The same investment in nuclear power would create 1,050 jobs. If you invested in solar power, you would create about 1,900 jobs. But if you invested your $1 billion in retrofitting buildings, he said, you would create something like 7,000 jobs—an impressive accomplishment. As well as creating jobs, building retrofits are an inexpensive way to make a big difference on the climate-change front.

Green buildings, reduced greenhouse gases and job creation: It sounds almost too good to be true. Of course, the complexity of launching such a campaign might make Newsom wish for the simpler days when his biggest controversy was announcing mandatory composting regulations.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.