If you want to get a sense of the scale of the opportunity in green building, look around.
If you're reading this while inside a U.S. office building, there is an 85 percent chance you're under or near a fluorescent tube bulb. General Electric and Westinghouse began selling them in 1938. They were a big hit, along with the television and an IBM typewriter, at the World's Fair a year later.
Modern drywall? 1916. Joseph Aspdin invented Portland cement, which is still the world standard today, in 1824. The cement is made by crushing rock and cooking it to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. With the right tools, the Flintstones could have figured that one out. Electric air conditioning? Willis Carrier invented it in 1902. And you can thank Albert Butz for the devising the thermostat in 1885.
And if you think about it, you could probably take care of your cooling and lighting needs if you could only open your office window.
It's that handsome combination of IOU (inefficient, old and ubiquitous) technology, the potential for inexpensive solutions and the "wow" factor that green design techniques lend buildings like the California Academy of Sciences that lay at the heart of the market. Building hasn't been as popular with VCs as solar or biofuels -- but many believe we are on the verge of a two-decade boom in retrofits and new types of construction. (It's why we are holding our Green Building Summit next week on June 11.)
Besides, if the economics won't drive it, legislation will. In California, new homes will likely have to meet net-zero energy standards by 2020 and commercial buildings will have to hit it by 2030. An estimated $21.65 billion is baked into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And to get grants in other parts of the program, applicants have to show they are "shovel ready."
But it's also a more complex market with more moving parts than solar or biofuels. We've broken it down into five segments.
1. Construction and Design
If you talk to contractors and architects, they claim that most energy savings can be accomplished through proper design and construction. While that point can be debated, green construction has clearly become commercially attractive. Various studies report that LEED-certified or LEED-like buildings generate higher rentals and property values. Employers claim environmental construction reduces sick days and serves as a recruiting tool. A much-touted retrofit of the Empire State Building dropped energy consumption by 38 percent.
In China, A skyscraper being erected in Shanghai will have municipal parks on most floors while buildings by upscale developer Shui On Land can rent for 1.5 times that of competing properties, according to sources. Retrofitting or building green also does not necessarily add costs.
Source: Department of Energy
Limbach Energy Solutions, a large HVAC contractor in Pittsburgh, has begun to take a program developed in Ohio for cash-flow neutral energy retrofits. In the commercial market, large builders like Webcor and Weitz already gain a substantial portion of their revenue from LEED. A few startups like Project Frog, which builds energy efficient schools, have also emerged.
The consumer space has moved slower than commercial or government. Prior to the economic downturn, mass home builders such as Lennar reported fairly strong sales of homes equipped with solar panels. Since then, it's been tough to sell homes. Michelle Kaufmann Designs, one of the early modular homebuilders, recently went under while others such as Living Homes and Zeta Communities are in startup mode.