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Energy COOL Roofing is Cool: Secretary Chu takes action

July 20th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has advocated cool roofing as a very high payoff tool to improving energy efficiency in the built environment, reducing heat island impacts, and helping to move us forward in climate change mitigation. Yesterday, Secretary Chu announced a series of initiatives to spur cool roof deployment in (on) Department of Energy (DOE) facilities and the rest of the Federal government. In short

Secretary Chu has directed all DOE offices to install cool roofs, whenever cost effective over the lifetime of the roof, when constructing new roofs or replacing old ones at DOE facilities. With cool roofs, these federal buildings will consume less energy, offset additional carbon emissions, and save taxpayers money.

In essence, cool roofs cost the building owner a little bit more upfront but cost far (FAR) less to own due to reduced utility and maintenance costs. They are very fast payoff upgrade investments. (Wal-Mart, according to one of its executives, counts the payoff time for the additional upfront cost in terms of a few weeks.) Putting in cool roofs also contributes to reducing the heat island impact (urban areas being warmer than surrounding rural areas) and help reduce climate change impacts.

As Secretary Chu put it in the press release:

“Cool roofs are one of the quickest and lowest cost ways we can reduce our global carbon emissions and begin the hard work of slowing climate change,” said Secretary Chu. “By demonstrating the benefits of cool roofs on our facilities, the federal government can lead the nation toward more sustainable building practices, while reducing the federal carbon footprint and saving money for taxpayers.”

Per Secretary Chu’s memo (pdf):

Energy efficiency is one of the lowest cost options for reducing GHG emissions. Buildings account for 40 percent of U.S. energy use — and about 35 percent of the Nation’s GHGs. An effective method for reducing building energy use is installation of a cool roof, which reflects sunlight and reduces heat gain. By reducing heat gain, a cool roof lowers the need for air-conditioning and saves energy. Yet, cool roofs do even more. In an urban or campus setting, they reduce the “heat island effect,” lowering ambient air temperature and improving air quality.

Because cool roofs provide significant energy savings and environmental benefits, they should be used whenever practical. Accordingly, effective immediately, unless determined uneconomical by a life-cycle cost analysis, roof replacements and roofs for new construction shall be cool roofs.

As per the press release, DOE has already begun cool roofing:

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, has already installed more than two million square feet of cool and white roofs at NNSA sites across the country. Through the Roof Asset Management Program (RAMP), NNSA currently saves an average of $500,000 a year in energy costs and expects to save more than $10 million over the next 15 years. Overall, NNSA has reduced building heating and cooling costs by an average of 70 percent annually on reroofed areas by installing cool roofs and increasing insulation.

As part of the Department’s ongoing efforts to implement cool roofs on its facilities, Secretary Chu also announced that design will begin this summer on cool roof replacements at DOE Headquarters in Washington, DC. Cool roof projects are also underway at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls and Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Collectively, these projects will cover over 350,000 square feet and save thousands of dollars for taxpayers annually


Secretary Chu has sent a letter to all other US Departments urging them to take similar actions in their own buildings.

Secretary Chu’s step is a quite sensible one, worthy of applause.

This policy will pay off for the taxpayer, in relatively quick time frames, as cool roofing will (a) lower utility costs, (b) reduce maintenance costs (due to lower extreme temperatures stressing roofs), and (c) reduce future costs for repairing / replacing roofs. These are simply the direct ‘on budget’ paybacks, there are additional direct fiscal benefits due to lowered air conditioning costs as the ambient temperature is lowered with increased cool roof deployment. And, of course, there are the ancillary benefits of reduced urban heat island and reduced climate change impacts.

The question you might ask: why is it that you hear only one hand clapping?

First off, while great that this is happening at DOE, cool roofing should simply be building code for most of the United States. While the Federal government is large (huge), it is only a small share of all the buildings (commercial, industrial, and residential) in the nation.

Secondly, a very simple question: Why did it take so long? Why didn’t Secretary Chu take this action almost the first day he entered the office?

Secretary Chu is the decision-maker, this is something that could be (and, in essence, was) done with the stroke of a pen — not requiring a new law or Congressional authorization or … and, this is something that Secretary Chu has long understood was a no-brainer option. After all, more than a year ago, Secretary Chu spoke powerfully about the value of cool roofing.

He said global warming could be slowed by a low-tech idea that has nothing to do with coal plants or solar panels: white roofs.

Making roofs white “changes the reflectivity … of the Earth, so the sunlight comes in, it’s reflected back into space,” Chu said. “This is something very simple that we can do immediately,”

The most recent calculation is that cool roofing and making reflective relevant surfaces in all cities, globally, of 1 million or more people would have an equivalent offset more than two-years of greenhouse gas emissions. E.g., cool roofing isn’t a panacea solution but it can make a dent in the problem.

If something so straightforward, so clearly understood as viable and valuable by the key decision-maker, takes over a year to become “immediately”, what does this suggest about more complicated and less clear-cut options?

UPDATE:  A response to the question “why not sooner” from the Department of Energy:

Under Secretary Chu’s leadership, the Department has been moving toward cool roofs over the past 18 months.  The Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, for example, launched a number of cool roof renovations in 2009.  Secretary Chu’s order formalizes the process and is the next step in the overall effort.

Sigh … yes … but … it still would have been good to see this become US government policy a year+ ago. (Well, 10 years ago, but I’m arguing since reality-based thinking retook the reins of government.)  And, it is something that should be national policy — not just USG action.  Still, again, it is good that DOE is doing this … even as we need more and faster action.

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Tags: Congress · department of energy · Energy · energy cool · energy efficiency · environmental · global warming deniers · government energy policy · politics

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