Simple Things Like Painting Roofs White

Dave Johnson

If you paint black roofs white you save a lot on energy use, and you create some jobs. So how come something as simple as this is so hard to get going?

I’m at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) – America. CGI is about a “process” of bringing attendees together to get things done, with business leaders, non-profits and government officials at all levels to engage in practical, scalable projects that potentially point the way to doing good things on a large scale.

One very simple example being discussed here is partnerships to just do something as simple as painting flat, black rooftops white. Black rooftops can reach 140 degrees in the summer, heating the building and raising energy costs. Painting a black rooftop a reflective white lowers energy use considerably. But very few roofs are being painted white.

It’s just a simple thing — that also creates jobs — but is not something that is getting done. There are a few initiatives coming out of CGI-America to get it done, and maybe they will scale up, but this demonstrates just how hard it can be to get things like this done. Retrofitting buildings and residences — even just as far as painting a roof white — saves energy so the work can be paid for out of the savings. It creates jobs for the people who do the work. It helps the country become energy-independent. It saves enough money to pay for itself.

Beyond painting roofs, retrofitting commercial and residential buildings to be more energy efficient is a very large opportunity. It cuts energy use, cuts carbon emissions, and creates skilled jobs. There are 5 million commercial buildings and 114 million homes, a $400 billion opportunity. This work needs to be done, and pays for itself. Government should be fully engaged getting this going all across the country (like high-speed rail, smart electrical grid, wind and solar energy, infrastructure modernization, etc.) But it isn’t, and industry only does a few thousand a year.

Did I say that it pays for itself? The problem is raising the up-front costs and then paying that back from the savings over time. This is known as “financing” the work. Financing things like this is the traditional job of the investment community. So why does it take the AFL-CIO to step up to the plate because government and business won’t, to do something so obvious? This is the same problem as our problem with maintaining our infrastructure. Infrastructure Work Is Needed And People Need The Work, but since the Reagan Revolution it just isn’t getting done.

I am at the lunch plenary that is discussing this issue of retrofitting buildings. Here is the video of this event. I recommend watching it, it is wonky policy stuff but if you like that, this is great:

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