The Battle Over Energy Code


[ How many of those new Bellevue buildings would be using less energy if we had stricter State energy code? ]

The construction industry and the automobile manufacturers must be cut from the same cloth. Because when confronted with the critically important task of increasing the energy efficiency of their products, instead of providing bold leadership and innovation, all they both seem to do is whine and complain that it’s too hard.

On November 20 the Washington State Building Code Council approved updates to the State’s energy code, dragging along the status-quo construction industry kicking and screaming. Governor Chris Gregoire had called for the updates to require a 30 percent improvement in energy efficiency over current code, but pressure from construction industry lobbyists succeeded in watering that down to a range between 15 and 18 percent.

In a November 25 press release, State Rep. Dan Kristiansen (R-Snohomish) claimed that the code updates will add up to 20 percent to the cost of new homes, citing an industry study that estimated a $24,000 premium on a 1200 square-foot, single-story home. Scared yet? But oops, apparently someone didn’t get the memo:  the press release also claims—incorrectly—that the new code will “require a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption for buildings by July 2010.”

Unsurprisingly, the Master Builders Association also pushed back hard, and write on their web site:

The SBCC’s vote will increase the cost of housing by $5,000 to $10,000 per single-family home, beginning on July 1, 2010. The original figure of more than $10,000 per home was reduced as a result of our association’s efforts to expose the damaging effect such changes would have on the industry.

That still might sound like a lot, so then how about a third opinion, this one from the Washington State Department of Commerce:

Improved technology, air sealing, testing and labeling will add about $1 per square foot to a new house. The owner of a 2,000-square-foot house will earn that back in energy-bill savings in a year or less, pocketing the annual savings every year there after.

Perhaps not so scary after all. Smart even. Perhaps?

The other main industry objection is about jobs, that the burst bubble has already obliterated construction, and now is not the right time to make significant changes. As Kristiensen put it, “This will serve to do nothing more than prolong an already serious recession.” But those who make this argument are conveniently forgetting about all the jobs that will be created by the demand for new products and services associated with energy-efficient construction, a.k.a. green jobs.

And besides, it’s never the right time.  If code changes were proposed during a boom no doubt the argument would morph into how we can’t introduce any extra cost when home buyers are already being stretched to their limits by rising prices.

All that said, there’s some great stuff in the new energy code, which becomes effective in July 2010:

Among the residential code improvements passed by the Council are:

  • Programmable thermostats on all primary heating systems
  • Air leakage testing with a “blower door” for all new homes
  • Duct testing for all new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems
  • Posting of a certificate of residential energy efficiency features on new homes

Commercial improvements include:

  • Upgrades to lighting controls, including occupancy sensors and technology to take better advantage of daylight
  • Upgraded insulation for ceilings
  • More energy efficient windows
  • Sub-metering for tenants to help them manage energy use

Though none of this is rocket science.  And I can’t help editorializing that it’s about effin time.

Because in the U.S, buildings consume between about 40 to 50 percent of total energy (depending on how the beans are counted), and account for 43 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.  And because once a building is on the ground, it’s likely to stay around for 50 to 100 years—and that’s a long time to live with a missed opportunity.

I wanted to wrap this one up with a quip about how we can hope the construction industry learns a lesson from the fate of auto industry, but unfortunately it’s still not clear whether or not U.S. automakers have learned anything.

13 Responses to “The Battle Over Energy Code”

  1. Matt the Engineer

    The recession complaint is just criminal. The extra money in building an energy efficient building almost all comes from labor, which directly equals jobs. Just from your list above:

    Programmable thermostats: almost free ($35 at Costco)
    Air leakage testing: new jobs
    Duct testing: new jobs
    Posting of a certificate: almost free, just adds a bit of labor (new jobs)
    Lighting controls: added labor = new jobs
    Upgraded insulation, efficient window: ok, no direct new jobs for these but the payback is great
    Sub-metering: minimal extra equipment, mostly labor (= jobs)

    Their real complaint is that construction companies don’t benefit from energy efficiency – the end user does. This will eat into their profit.

  2. Clyde

    It’s a perfect analogy – if you require more energy efficient homes/buildings/cars – fill in the blank – the world as we know it will come to an end.

    Nowhere do the home builders and the BIAW ever talk about the benefits to homeowners. Instead, they’d rather stick homeowners with higher than necessary energy bills for the life of the home. Bills that will only get progressively higher with the higher cost of energy. Nor do the legislators who are blocking the new code ever acknowledge that what they are doing is costing the state millions of dollars – it makes it harder to meet the state’s emission limits; it means utilities will have to find other more expensive sources of energy; it means that consumers end up paying more for energy rather than spending it elsewhere – or saving it.

    All this for a change in the energy code that is demonstrably cost effective.

  3. David Schraer

    We could magnify and extend the impact of energy-saving code measures by reviewing the passive performance of buildings before looking at the impact of mechanical systems. More at http://www.lightandair.wordpress.com, Transforming Seattle, #5.

  4. mike

    meanwhile, the europeans are going the otherway, putting forward mandates for severely progressive energy efficiency standards like passivhaus and minergie, which get about 90% & 80% reduction over baseline. passivhaus is coming out to about 4-6% higher than typical construction (in the EU) and coming down as the market gets additional PH-compliant products and contractors get familiar with the standards.

    LEED isn’t going to get us there, especially when you can still pull down a LEED Silver rating without any energy reductions at all.

    bring on the challenge, gregoire. lead, follow or get out of the way. we know where the republicans, BIAW and MBA stand (in the way, per SOP) – and as they do, they’re holding back innovation. their shortsightedness will not only prevent us from being the first carbon neutral city, but we won’t be close to 2030 unless we get serious about energy efficiency.

  5. dan cortland

    Seattle carbon neutral? As in, purchasing so many offsets that some other place can’t be “carbon neutral”?

  6. Matt the Engineer

    [dan] We have enough green energy here to even be carbon negative (selling carbon credit to others) if we design our buildings well and put a high enough price on carbon.

  7. dan cortland

    City Light, even with its own dams, has to buy hydro power from BPA, correct?

    How do we reach neutrality with respect to fossil fuels used for heating and transportation? From where is the truly additional sequestration coming?

  8. Matt the Engineer

    And is buying clean power from BPA causing them to burn coal? No – it’s excess, and if they couldn’t supply their excess we’d build more (as we’re currently planning to do).

    Fuel is our real problem. With nicely efficient buildings that use ground source heat pumps all you use is electricity. With a well designed walkable city with good transit (and electric cars for those on the outskirts), we can remove transportation fuels.

    Will we get this done by 2030? I doubt it. Could we? Sure.

  9. dan cortland

    Thanks, Matt. My point about buying from BPA is that Seattle doesn’t seem to have excess to sell.

    By “build more”, do you mean wind, or more hydro? If the latter, would it come from increasing the heights of Skagit dams or from elsewhere?

  10. Matt the Engineer

    I believe they’re looking at a combination of wind, biomass, geothermal, and landfill gas (as well as a few less green options involving natural gas).

    There’s a great study they’ve produced here, though it doesn’t look like they’ve decided on the exact mix yet. It looks like they own about half of their capacity and lease the rest from sources like BPA. An interesting aspect of the study is that they’ve looked at potential effects of climate change on energy production (if it rains more, how much more hydro that will turn into, etc.).

  11. Seattle’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory: Buildings | hugeasscity

    [...] the City’s report cites is conversion from oil to gas furnaces. One can speculate that tighter energy codes and efficiency upgrades (e.g. CFLs, insulation, etc.) also contributed.  But here’s the [...]

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    sweet post my car uses water fuel as energy source here is a link to get it yourself: link

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