Promoting Energy Efficiency: the Better Buildings Initiative

David Weise

Posted by David Weise

The federal Better Buildings Initiative helps foster greater energy efficiency by using public and private sector partnerships to develop supportive programs and encourage innovation. At this time of concern over the elimination of key programs and standards that promote energy efficiency, it is important to recognize how much has been accomplished by existing federal programs such as the Better Buildings Initiative.


President Trump’s administration has taken steps to prevent the adoption of important new energy efficiency standards that were under development. Additionally, the President’s 2018 budget proposal calls for the elimination of many programs responsible for major energy efficiency gains such as the federal ENERGy STAR program. Other energy efficient programs face significant budget cuts. Hopefully, the Better Buildings Initiative will not be adversely impacted by these changes.

History of the Better Buildings Initiative

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) started the Better Buildings Initiative in 2011. President Obama called for improving the energy efficiency of the nation’s commercial buildings, responsible for 20% of the United States’ energy use at that time. The program is part of DOE’s Office Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, slated for a 70% budget cut under the current President’s budget proposal.

At its inception, the Better Buildings Initiative sought to make commercial buildings 20% more efficient by 2020. It was estimated that this reduction in energy use would save businesses about $40 billion.

President Obama called for the development of incentives to encourage energy efficiency such as tax deductions and increased availability of financing to make building upgrades. As part of the initiative, grants were to be made available to state and local governments to support updating their energy efficiency standards and encourage private investment in energy efficiency projects.

The Better Buildings Initiative also incorporated a program, known as the Better Buildings Challenge, that asks business leaders to commit to making their facilities more energy efficient and share information with others in their sector. Workforce training in areas that promote energy efficiency, such as energy auditing, was also Included in President Obama’s vision for the Better Buildings Initiative.

Current Better Buildings Programs

The Better Buildings Initiative has evolved to include a broad range of programs and partnerships with private businesses, non-profit organizations and institutions, and state and local governments to encourage innovative solutions and investment in energy efficiency. The following are examples of some of the current programs.

Better Buildings Challenge

According to the Better Buildings Initiative’s most recent report, Successful Strategies Driving Innovation & Results: Progress Report 2017 (Progress Report), more than 345 organizations are participating in the Better Buildings Challenge that has grown to include “commercial, institutional, and multifamily buildings and industrial plants.” According to the Progress Report, Better Buildings Challenge participants have saved 240 trillion Btus of energy and $1.9 billion in energy costs since 2011. In addition to conducting an energy efficiency audit, setting an energy savings goal, and implementing a plan, program participants share their strategies so others can learn from their success.

Better Buildings Accelerators

In 2013, The Better Buildings Initiative began work on Better Buildings Accelerators (Accelerators), solutions to specific energy efficiency barriers. Currently, there are 13 Accelerators developed by partnering organizations. Three new Accelerators were completed in 2016: (1) energy savings performance contracting - increased access by state and local governments and K-12 schools to energy efficient investments; (2) outdoor lighting - developed high-performance lighting for streets and areas and resolved barriers to system-wide lighting replacement; and (3) industrial superior energy performance - demonstrating cost savings resulting from industrial facilities using superior energy performance.

Better Plants

Manufacturers and water utilities participate in the Better Plants Program and Challenge (Better Plants) to improve energy efficiency. Most program participants have committed to reducing energy use by 25% or more over a decade. Energy performance data and energy saving solutions are shared by Better Plant members.

According to the Progress Report, Better Plants now includes almost 200 industrial partners representing 2,600 facilities and 12% of the U.S. manufacturing footprint. As part of the effort to improve energy efficiency, the program participants also look for cost-cutting strategies using resources and training programs provided by DOE. The Better Plants partners have saved $3.1 billion in energy costs by participating in the program.

Better Buildings Alliance

Representing different sectors of the commercial building industry, the Better Buildings Alliance partners participate in at least one program activity per year, work with DOE technical experts to design solutions, and share their outcomes to help foster technical advances and greater energy efficiency. Currently, there are more than 230 Better Buildings Alliance members representing the commercial real estate, healthcare, higher education, hospitality, retail, foodservice, and grocery sectors.

Each Alliance sector sets different priorities for the year with the help of Sector Steering Committee members. Some of the recent campaigns are: (1) updating to more energy efficient rooftop units; (2) encouraging energy efficient interior lighting solutions; (3) adopting high-efficiency lighting for parking; and (4) encouraging the use of smart energy analytics.

Better Communities Alliance

DOE launched the Better Communities Alliance (BCA) in 2016 to collaborate with local governments, nonprofits, and private companies to help communities develop clean energy solutions. Presently, the program works with 43 local governments to define common issues and work on possible solutions. BCA also uses data analysis and energy planning to encourage cost savings. Additionally, the program tries to streamline local governments’ access to DOE resources.

Providing Critical Resources

The Better Buildings Initiative provides valuable resources and potential solutions for businesses that are interested increasing their energy efficiency. The program’s website contains energy efficiency implementation models and tools that can be replicated by businesses and organizations.

Resources are also available to assist with financing energy efficiency projects. The Better Buildings Initiative includes the Financing Navigator, an online tool to find financing for energy efficiency projects, and various financing toolkits that may be used to support different ways to achieve energy efficiency gains, such as model energy savings performance contracts.

The Better Buildings Initiative also provides resources to improve operations’ energy efficiency. For example, the program makes available the Better Buildings Workforce Guidelines, created to improve the job performance of four types of energy-related positions: Building Energy Auditor, Building Commissioning Professional, Building Operations Professional, and Energy Manager.

The initiative sponsors an annual meeting, the Better Buildings Summit, that bringings together organizations from across the country to discuss solutions and opportunities for energy efficiency.

The Future of the Better Buildings Initiative

Hopefully, the Better Buildings Initiative will be allowed to continue its valuable work. In addition to achieving greater energy efficiency, the Better Buildings Initiative has resulted in large cost savings for participating businesses and organizations. The program also represents very successful partnerships between the public and private sectors that should continue to be supported.

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