The Retrofit Design Revolution

It is fair to say most people do not fully understand that the full-spectrum transition to a consumer-centered clean energy economy will not eliminate or replace all pre-existing technologies. The tested and/or cherished old-form designs that work their way into the full-spectrum sustainable clean energy economy will be those that most readily allow us to deploy significant technical efficiency upgrades.

Early electric vehicle (EV) and hybrid drive technologies have taught us that clean, electric or hybrid means small, lightweight and delicate. But the USS Makin Island, a hybrid-drive warship, and the Tesla Model S, a powerful all-electric luxury sedan rated by Consumer Reports as the best car ever tested, have shown us this is not the case.


This is what it feels like to ride in an all-electric vehicle—the Tesla Model S—that has immediate acceleration, perfect suspension, an ultra-quiet ride and full-screen Internet or GPS in the dashboard.

As clean energy technologies advance and electricity storage, transfer and drive systems become more robust and lightweight, we can envision entirely new paradigms for recreating classic heavy-material designs. We can now provide full-power automotive drive to heavy vehicles from electricity, with state of the art technologies.

But the state of the art is rapidly evolving: ultra-efficient solar energy technologies, ultra-lightweight rapid-recharge battery systems, high-torque in-wheel EV motors, and the potential for real-time in-motion hydrogen fuel generation, are making it possible to conceive of the end of hydrocarbon fuels for overland vehicle transport, within two decades.

The market for building retrofits is already a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business. A report from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisers finds that:

In the United States alone, more than $279 billion could be invested across the residential, commercial and institutional market segments. This investment could yield more than $1 trillion of energy savings over 10 years, equivalent to savings of approximately 30% of the annual electricity spend in the United States.

Failure to make the optimal investments in energy efficiency (EE) retrofits could mean an opportunity cost (cost of investment opportunity lost) of more than three times the money “saved” by not investing in retrofits. This means a boom market is coming over the next several decades. And ever more lightweight energy producing and energy saving materials means it is now possible to optimize investments to achieve even bigger EE savings.

Some institutions, with favorable surrounding market conditions and the freedom to fund the more productive EE options, can expect to save more than 50% of their energy budget and possibly to reach net zero in energy costs, by feeding energy back to the grid. These funding-format advances are making it possible to identify the real-time emergence of a decentralized end-user-centered clean energy (CE) economy.

Retrofits will accelerate our progress toward net zero carbon-dioxide emissions, and allow far more players onto the field where the green economy is now visibly in operation, and rapidly expanding its reach. The decentralization of energy affluence and energy influence will follow, and that double incentive (acceleration and decentralization—two distinct but complementary kinds of efficiency) means we can start planning now how best to retrofit what we want to keep using.

Whether it’s a 1960s Aston-Martin or a 1957 Chevy, an old fieldstone church, a colonial-era brick building, or a school built in the 1950s, we now have ways to apply the latest in ephemeral clean energy generation and energy efficiency technology to bring that vehicle or structure up to speed with the emerging full-spectrum all-clean energy economy.

To understand the importance of the role that energy efficiency and EV-drive retrofits will play in the emerging green economy is to understand that this economy is already with us, already achieving historic firsts, and rapidly expanding its reach. According to the Rockefeller-DeutscheBank report [pdf], EE capital investments over the next ten years can produce “3.3 million cumulative job years of employment”.

The takeaway is simple: the retrofit design revolution can attract nearly $300 billion in capital investment, just for the buildings and institutional segment of the market, and that money will provide more than triple return on investment, within 10 years, in energy savings. And that estimate ($27.9 billion per year) is fairly conservative, given the size of the US economy and the potential for compounded growth in the emerging EE/CE economy.

When we add transport and industrial production to the mix, the market for EE/CE capital investment becomes an unprecedented economy-wide opportunity. The retrofit design revolution is underway, and it will employ many of the world’s most advanced, ultralight, ultra-efficient new technologies, to ensure optimal return on investment across the full spectrum of energy-consuming activities.

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Originally published July 11, 2013, at

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