It isn't easy - or cheap - being green: LEED standards are expensive, ineffective

It isn't easy - or cheap - being green: LEED standards are expensive, ineffective

April 3rd, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

Energy efficiency is a laudable goal. When that efficiency comes in the form of constructing more environmentally sustainable energy efficient buildings, it seems like a win for everyone. Unfortunately, the reality of green building efforts in the United States is much different than that hunky-dory image.

The federal government, along with dozens of states and hundreds of municipalities, has created a taxpayer-funded monopoly for a private environmental organization that oversees a green building certification program. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a flawed standard that lines the pockets of a private organization with tax dollars, has fallen short of delivering the energy efficiency it promises, and rewards select players in the building and construction industries.

LEED is managed and overseen by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), which is not a government entity, despite what many think. The USGBC is a private - so-called "nonprofit" - environmental organization led by Rick Fedrizzi, the group's founder and president. Fedrizzi earns a yearly salary in excess of $500,000 according to publicly available records. The group boasts 13,000 members, most of whom are architects, builders or building suppliers. Many of these members specialize in - and profit from - some of the products and construction designs that USGBC mandates in order for a new building to achieve one of its levels of LEED certification, according to the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

A building achieves LEED certification by earning credits that are spelled out by the USGBC. The credits, however, too often have little or nothing to do with energy efficiency. USA Today recently published a revealing three-part series that examined LEED. In those articles, it was noted that buildings could get a credit simply for having a LEED expert on its design team and that some schools received credits for teaching about green buildings in the classroom.

The Palazzo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas achieved LEED certification partly by installing bike racks in its garage, placing cards in rooms that tell guests when their towels are replaced and by establishing preferred parking for fuel-efficient vehicles. By gaining LEED certification, the owners of the hotel received at $27 million tax break.

The USGBC has quietly established a monopoly on green building construction with the federal and local governments. The General Services Administration, commonly referred to as the "landlord" for federal government buildings, mandates adherence to LEED standards for all new federal buildings. It's no wonder that the highest concentration of LEED certified buildings is in Washington, D.C. Many states, and some of the nation's largest cities, have followed the practice of the federal government. Not only have governments mandated adherence to LEED for the construction of public buildings, many localities have enacted laws that gives tax breaks - like the $27 million windfall for the Palazzo - for private construction of LEED certified buildings.

The USGBC has been able to make LEED certification a requirement across the country for public and private construction projects alike. And the organization is handsomely rewarded. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance found that the USGBC collects up to $35,000 for each new building it certifies.

These fees and the USGBC's monopoly might be less objectionable if so many questions didn't surround LEED's record of saving energy or reducing costs. The New York Times estimated that LEED certification adds as much as 20 percent to constructions costs. Meanwhile, a study of 11 LEED certified buildings belonging to the Navy showed that four of them used more energy than non-LEED counterparts and three of them left green footprints almost identical to buildings that do not have such certification.

The evidence is clear: With its high costs and ineffectiveness at reducing energy consumption, the LEED program costs taxpayers money, harms the economy and is plagued with a trail of questions about its effectiveness.

One dubious environmental organization should not dictate green building policy throughout the country - especially without oversight, and when alternative green building standards exist. American taxpayers and voters deserve to know why our elected officials have farmed out important energy and environmental policy to a private environmental organization. At the very least, there needs to be a competitive, market-driven process among the various green certification standards available if our government is going to rely upon outside groups to assess the greenness and energy efficiency of our nation's buildings.