Energy Retrofitting: Will Green Roofing Finally Catch on in the U.S.?

Energy Retrofitting: Will Green Roofing Finally Catch on in the U.S.?


Mar 22, 2016

Blog Energy and Resources Energy Retrofitting: Will Green Roofing Finally Catch on in the U.S.?

The energy retrofit industry is rapidly expanding. Environmental awareness has created a shift in the public's priorities and commercial property owners are retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient. Regardless of whether property owners retrofit their buildings for cost-savings or environmental reasons, the benefits are abundant. If the United States keeps on pace with how quickly the industry has been growing, we will be just a step closer to a cleaner earth.


Energy retrofit technologies encompass a variety of systems. HVAC, lighting design, electricity submeters, and green roofing all fall into this category. Essentially, energy retrofitting refers to any mechanisms or systems which directly reduce energy usage. Overall, the energy retrofit industry for public and private commercial buildings is expected to grow to nearly $132.3 billion by 2020.

Of the four main technologies, green roofing is growing the quickest and has an estimated compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.9% globally. North America will have the strongest growth with a CAGR of 34.9%. Thus far, North America has been a bit slow to catch on to the technology, while European countries have been green roofing for years. As the technology advances, green roofing will be heavily adopted in the commercial sector, especially in large cities.


A green roof is a system used for growing vegetation on a rooftop. The system usually includes a water repellant layer, a root barrier, a drainage system, and a medium for growing plants. The repellant layers and barriers prevent water and roots from penetrating the roof, and the growing medium is light enough so as not to put excess weight on the roof. The main purpose of a green roof is to catch and filter rainwater and to provide insulation, which results in energy savings. The benefits of green roofing are plentiful, regardless of whether applied to public or private buildings.

  • Aesthetically, green roofs beautify the building, and many studies have shown that having access to a green roof improves health and reduces stress.
  • Green roofs are tremendously helpful for stormwater management. Because the plants naturally store and filter water, green roofs produce less runoff, and the runoff that is produced is cleaner. During summer months, green roofs retain between 70-90% of rainwater.
  • Green roof plants naturally filter greenhouse gasses and other particles from the air, reducing CO2 and other pollutants.
  • Extensive green roofs (lighter, low-maintenance vegetation) drastically improve temperature regulation. One study found that an extensive green roof reduced the need for air conditioning by more than 75% in the summer.
  • Green roofs can extend the lifespan of roofing materials and other energy systems within the building. In turn, this reduces waste.
  • Aside from improving biodiversity in urban environments, green roofs also offer social benefits. Green roofs can serve as community gardens or education centers, and can even be used as local food systems.

There are many more benefits to green roofs, but perhaps the most appealing to commercial property owners is the significant cost-savings. Green roofing, in combination with other energy retrofit technologies, saves an average of 20-40% on energy costs. This is particularly remarkable if you consider that 70-80% of a building's energy usage is due to energy inefficiency.  From an environmental standpoint, green roofs play a pivitol role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions globally.


In the U.S. alone, more than 40% of carbon dioxide emissions come from buildings. Imagine the impact if all public and commercial buildings were required to have green roofs. It's a vision that's not far from reality. In fact, several other countries and cities are already doing it, including Copenhagen and Toronto. The most recent to join the movement is France, where lawmakers have made it official that all new commercial buildings must be either partially green-roofed or outfitted with solar panels. Unfortunately, America has been slow to adopt green roof technology, and the industry must overcome a few hurdles before mandates start getting passed.


Currently, Chicago is leading the nation in its efforts to make city-wide green roofing a reality. The city has been green roofing buildings since the early 2000s and recently began requiring green roofs on eligible private projects. There are around 600 green roofed buildings in Chicago for an estimated total of 7 million square feet of green roofed space. The city's efforts to push green roofing have uncovered some of the barriers the industry is encountering, however. For one, commercial retrofit financing is in a pitiful state in this country. The upfront capital investment for energy retrofit projects isn't cheap, and financing programs are few and far between. Currently, there are only two major models:

  • PACE (property-assessed clean energy), which adds the loan to the property tax lien. These loans must be authorized by the state and are generally only available to commercial and industrial properties. 
  • OBR (on-bill repayment) programs, which is a loan through the utility provider. OBR loans are available on a residential and commercial scale.

Other options include funding through public trading (MLPs), or through credit enhancements like loan guarantees and loan loss reserves. The nation has a long way to go, but if uniform lending at a statewide level could be achieved, cities may have more access to energy retrofit funding. A recent report by Ceres outlines a possible strategy for increasing investments and creating a secondary loan market. Aside from financial barriers, the industry also faces issues like a lack of public awareness and technological uncertainties. As with any new technology, it takes a while for the public to get educated and get on board. Thankfully, market research suggests the industry has turned a corner and will continue to grow exponentially.

Energy retrofitting technologies aren't just beneficial to property owners; they're a crucial step in creating healthier communities and protecting our planet. If the industry continues at its current pace, we can be hopeful for a future in which every city is a sea of green roofs, with cleaner air and happier residents.



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    Jess Johnson

    Written By Jess Johnson

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