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Green Building Can Lay a Fast Foundation for Economic Recovery

One foundational equation for economic recovery is simple: Green building = green jobs, which would immediately save energy and money.

And President Barack Obama’s first legislative priority — a vital economic recovery bill — makes good on his campaign promise that green building must be a cornerstone of renewed green economy. It puts Americans back to work in the immediate term, and at the same time puts our nation on the path to resolving three interrelated challenges: energy independence, global competitiveness and climate change. [IMGCAP(1)]

Greening our schools and our homes, our firehouses and our courthouses, our office buildings and our neighborhoods is a sound, strategic approach to jump-starting our economy and paving the way for long-term recovery. And while it’s a no-brainer to apply these practices to new construction, it’s an imperative to apply them to the millions of energy hogs that line every block from Wall Street to Main Street, an effort that can generate $160 billion in savings by 2030, according to a report by McKinsey and Co.

Such a move could also pout thousands of Americans back to work by creating more than 2 million green jobs in the next five years. It will require immediate investment in training programs and need new financial mechanisms that facilitate green reinvestment in the 120 million homes and 5.1 million commercial buildings that define our cities and communities. But the return on that investment stands to be unprecedented in our country’s history.

We’re not talking about the longer-term returns that will come with alternative fuels or the significant innovation in products and materials. We’re talking about implementing on a vast scale simple changes that show up immediately in the energy bills and water usage of every business and family. And we’re talking about using an American work force to put these solutions in place. You can’t outsource construction jobs overseas.

Green school construction and renovation is a place to start; this sector alone represents a potential $20 billion in energy savings over the next 10 years. The state of Ohio, which is investing more than $4 billion in new green school construction and renovation, has projected savings of more than $1.4 billion in taxpayer money through reductions in water and energy consumption. And that figure doesn’t include the real-dollar metrics that can be applied to documented reductions in asthma attacks, improved test scores and long-term teacher retention.

Greening and retrofitting of our public housing facilities is another obvious initiative; it would not only improve health conditions and increase energy and water efficiency, but generate savings to low-income families for whom lower utility bills can mean extra meals on the table.

Incentives for simple weatherization solutions — sealing windows, insulating heating ducts and water pipes — are part of the stimulus package, opening the door to a flood of new jobs and skill sets that substantially reduce the bills of every homeowner and provide new work at a time our citizens and our economy desperately need it.

Our federal, state and local municipal buildings offer a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate leadership by example using energy efficient and water efficient technologies to save billions in taxpayer dollars and at the same time create green jobs that can help drive the low-carbon economy of the future.

To realize these returns, we need to craft innovative programs that advance new financial mechanisms — a federal green building revolving loan fund, for instance, that can turn the energy savings of green buildings into bankable assets that can fund upfront capital or improvement costs. And full funding of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants makes states and localities an equal partner in our success.

But financing alone won’t solve the problem if we don’t also ramp up affordable and accessible green jobs training. We should expand current programs and create tax incentives to encourage individuals and companies to take advantage of them, create new programs in our vocational schools, engage our union craftspeople — anything it takes to field this green work force as fast as possible.

The economic recovery package includes bold action to bring green building to scale as one of the fastest way to meet current economic and environmental challenges, put millions of Americans to work in green jobs and save families and businesses needed dollars. Using something as mundane as buildings as the lever that moves the economy forward seems almost counterintuitive. But for those of us who see the world in the simple terms of paychecks and savings accounts, it sounds straightforward enough to actually work.

S. Richard Fedrizzi is the president, chief executive officer and founding chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization committed to sustainable buildings within a generation.

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