USGBC LEED bombshell

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It has been speculated about for years: Is LEED certification -- based on the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards -- anything more than a PR stamp of approval, even though USGBC contends that buildings with this "stamp" actually use less energy than their uncertified counterparts? Hard evidence now answers this question.

Research conducted by the Environmental Policy Alliance reveals that large privately-owned buildings in Washington, D.C. certified under the USGBC's LEED standards actually use more energy than uncertified buildings. In fact, despite having the highest number of buildings in the country certified under LEED, the research reveals that Washington, D.C. buildings are actually less energy efficient than the national average.

The research determined energy consumption by comparing the weather-normalized source energy use intensity (EUI -- a unit of measurement that represents the energy consumed by a building relative to its size), for both buildings certified by the USGBC as "green" and those that have not gone through the USGBC's expensive permitting process. The LEED-certified buildings' EUI was 205, compared to 199 for non-certified buildings. Ironically, the USGBC's headquarters, which has achieved the highest level of LEED certification, is off the charts in terms of energy consumption at 236.

How can this be?

"The reason LEED doesn't produce energy-efficient buildings is that buildings are currently certified based on their projected energy use -- not their actual energy use. To gain LEED certification, the USGBC requires buildings to submit their plans through a modeling software that projects how much energy the building will use. How the building actually performs once it's occupied doesn't matter," Anastasia Swearingen, research analyst for the Environmental Policy Alliance, told FierceEnergy. "Another reason why buildings certified under LEED aren't necessarily more energy efficient is that the program has an arbitrary point system to earn different levels of certification. USGBC rewards a building for only including the minimum number of parking spaces with as many points as creating a 'green power' renewable energy system."

These findings are similar to those resulting from an analysis of D.C. government buildings by The Washington Examiner earlier this year, which revealed that many of the District's LEED-certified buildings were the least energy efficient of all comparable buildings.

"This latest data release only confirms what we already knew: LEED certification is little more than a fancy plaque displayed by these 'green' buildings," said Swearingen. "Previous analyses of energy use by LEED-certified buildings have consistently shown that LEED ratings have no bearing on actual energy efficiency."

These findings are significant, as D.C. is one of several major localities to mandate the use of LEED in construction of public buildings and was the first city to require all buildings (public and private) to disclose energy usage.

"It's troubling that to achieve the laudable goal of promoting greater energy efficiency, the district relies on the use of a third-party rating system that doesn't require actual proof of energy efficiency to earn certification," said Swearingen. "Even more alarming is the fact that the city is collecting millions of dollars in permit fees to administer this inefficient program."

In fiscal year 2013, D.C. collected more than $1.6 million in green building fees, and the District has collected over $5.2 million in fees since 2010, according to the Environmental Policy Alliance.

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