This is the first in a series of discussions led by invited speakers at the upcoming Physics of Sustainable Energy conference to be held March 8-9, 2014 at the University of California, Berkeley. Find more details below.

At roughly 48% of US energy use, the environmental performance of the US building stock plays a large role in progress, or lack of it, toward sustainability. Improving our buildings has turned on having a believable standard for assessing how green a proposal is. Since its introduction in 1998, one such standard has been LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), whose attractive features—voluntary participation, relatively objective and transparent criteria, multiple pathways, private sector origins, an organizational base relatively free of vested interests—fueled its rapid spread. There are now over 85,000 LEED accredited architects, engineers and other professionals in the US, 3000 or more projects have been certified in the system, and it has been used to define minimum green performance by several federal agencies, state and local governments.

This success has spurred both criticism and competition. Since 2004, a rival system, Green Globes, touted as simpler, faster and less expensive than LEED, has also seen significant growth, including recent acceptance by the Federal General Services Administration. LEED backers see this as a pathway to greenwashing; Green Globes proponents argue that competition will raise quality in both systems, and the building stock will benefit.

To complicate matters, major backing for Green Globes has come from the forestry and plastics industries, seemingly because it opens the door wider for existing products and practices than does LEED. In parallel, though no connections are admitted, there have been political moves in several states and the US Congress to redefine acceptable ratings in ways that exclude LEED.

If a prime purpose of standards is to reduce uncertainty about quality, does competition between green rating systems help or hurt? Is political intervention in the choice of rating systems likely to promote or retard sustainability?

Physics of Sustainable Energy Conference
Sponsored by the American Physical Society’s Forum on Physics and Society and several other research and education groups, this conference/workshop will be an intensive science-based survey by area experts of the full range of options for sustainable production and use of energy. The goal is to build up-to-date background for private and public sector professionals and academics active in energy affairs. Solar, wind, nuclear power, unconventional gas, smart grids, and a dozen other topics will all receive substantive attention. After the event, selected conference presentations will be available here at, and the discussion series will continue. Full details and registration information for Physics of Sustainable Energy can be found here.