'Green' Economy to Focus on Saving Money

Green business, including technology companies such as Energy Conversion Devices Inc. ( ENER) and alternative-energy firms like Xcel Energy ( XEL), was booming just a few months ago. Consumers were expected to spend $500 billion on green products and services this year, according to a survey from WPP's Landor Associates; Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates; and Cohn & Wolfe.

But with credit markets seizing up and many investors shying away from the market, even the most rock-solid sectors are having trouble. How will the economic crisis affect the green economy? To find out, we talked to Charles Lockwood, a green real estate consultant in southern California and New York City.

Will the economic crisis stall, or even kill, green commercial real estate?

No, green buildings are not headed for the chopping block. Certainly for the near term, corporations and developers will cut back on new construction. But sustainability makes too much economic sense to be discarded now or in the future.

Besides, dozens of states and cities, including Boston, Aspen and, most recently, Dallas, have already enacted regulations that mandate high-performance sustainable standards for privately owned buildings.

Green building materials, products and technologies were making real strides before the economic downturn. What is their future now?

Before I answer that question, I want to stress that most green materials and products, like zero-VOC paints and non-toxic flooring, now cost the same as or less than conventional products.

For now, the focus will be less on "green sci-fi" -- think of those 300-foot-tall towers that are supposed to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Instead, expect to see greater emphasis on low-cost, proven solutions, like maximizing the energy efficiency of a building's existing HVAC system rather than purchasing an all-new system.

What are the economic arguments in favor of green buildings at this time of great uncertainty?

Green is not a frill. It is a quick, money-saving fix for corporations and building owners because green buildings substantially lower energy, water and waste costs. Of greater importance for the bottom line, however, is the fact that workforce productivity is up to 16% higher in green buildings than conventional buildings.

For real estate owners, green buildings are vital. We will see tenants moving to green buildings, while conventional buildings will become increasingly unpopular and most likely experience above-average value declines.

What green real estate investments offer the best opportunities?

Forget the construction of new green buildings for now.

Today, the greatest investment opportunities are the purchase and greening of existing buildings through green retrofits, which enable owners to upgrade occupied buildings with cost-effective green technology while only moderately affecting the tenants. Today's economic shakeout will put some very good Class A properties, and some well-located Class B and C properties, on the market at advantageous prices that make them ideal for cost-effective green retrofits.

What about green housing? Prior to the mortgage crisis, green homes were starting to take off in the U.S. Are they stalled or dead for now?

Green homes offer great opportunities for owners and tenants to save money in tough economic times and to do their bit for the environment. Again, green buildings offer lower energy and water costs.

Having said that, I do not think a home's "greenness" is the No. 1 item on many homeowners' minds. They are struggling with bad mortgages or they are afraid of losing their jobs. So it's going to take a little while for green homes to become a key issue in housing markets.

Add the widespread notion that only rich people can afford green homes, and you can see why green homes face difficulty in gaining traction in today's difficult economy.

How will the Obama administration's proposed economic stimulus package affect green commercial real estate, products and technologies?

Even before Obama takes office, the $700 billion bailout package will support green real estate, products and technologies with extensions of the tax credit for solar energy properties, the production tax credits for wind energy, geothermal and other renewable energy resources, and the tax deduction for energy-efficient commercial buildings.

Second, President-elect Obama's plans include encouraging green retrofits of our existing building stock, from offices to homes, because it's the single best strategy to reduce our energy use, costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, Obama's economic stimulus plans include improving the national infrastructure, from roads and transit to bridges, sewers and the power grid, which is increasingly obsolete and literally falling apart.

But we will be wasting billions of dollars if we replicate today's infrastructure. We need much more money for mass transit, not just highways. We need to construct smart, green electrical grids and water distribution systems. And we need to turn from sprawl to more compact sustainable development patterns that reduce our energy consumption and our greenhouse gas emissions.

Kelsey Abbott is a freelance writer in Freeport, Maine, where she lives with her husband and their dog.

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