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Published on June 5th, 2010 | by Susan Kraemer

6

America Needs a Building Code in the Climate Bill



The House version of the climate bill, Waxman-Markey’s ACES included a national building code (Section 201, page 214) which would have led to a 75% reduction in national energy use from buildings. Yet it is not in the Senate’s climate and clean energy bill, the recently unveiled American Power Act.

Seven states leak greenhouse gases (and the wealth of their residents) simply because they do not have any energy-efficiency building codes. When there are no requirements, builders, who have to compete with other builders locally, have to cut corners too, to be competitive on upfront price. It becomes a race for the bottom.

As a result, in those states with no building codes; the same square feet of house need twice or more the kilowatt-hours of electricity (or btu’s of home-heating fossil fuels) to provide the same level of civilized living inside them as do houses in states with high efficiency requirements, because they are simply throwing energy out the door (and the roof, and the walls and the windows).

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And it is not clean energy being tossed out the window, in most of these states. Most of the states that eschew building codes are also the states dependent on the dirtiest energy as well, that are responsible for raising the average US coal use to 45%.

For example, Wyoming is 95% coal powered and the average home uses 1,000 kwh a month of coal powered electricity. 31% of homes are heated with electricity or other heavy emissions fossil fuels and 64% with natural gas.

Coal powers 93% of North Dakota homes, in Missouri it’s 82%, Kansas 73%, Alabama 54%. Oklahoma, which just signed a new Renewable Energy Standard; is at 47%. South Dakota has stepped up hydro power and uses 43% coal.

The only no-code states not throwing mostly the worst greenhouse gases out their uninsulated windows are 36% coal powered Arizona, (1/3 natural gas, which cuts greenhouse gas emissions in half; and 1/3 nuclear powered), and Mississippi which uses just 34% coal, thanks to natural gas and some nuclear.

But even there, the waste energy going out the window is still half as harmful to the climate – or is wasting a finite supply of nuclear power with no storage yet for waste.

Under Waxman-Markey, while differing regional needs were allowed for within the act, states and local governments would be required to adopt the new national codes, or codes that achieve equal or better energy savings. It had teeth. Noncompliance would result in loss of significant funding to the state.

The way improvements in building technology achieve widespread adoption is through building codes. If every has to do it, everyone does it. Never mind that building for efficiency saves more money over time, you can’t see it when you buy or rent it, so there is no premium paid for an efficient house. The money is saved on monthly energy bills later, by the occupant, not by the builder.

The exception is if the energy reduction is achieved with something obvious, like solar panels. A premium -$20,000 for every $1,000 saved – can be charged when there is clear evidence that energy costs will be reduced or eliminated, as there is with a solar roof.

When it comes time to reconcile the Senate and the House versions of the climate and clean energy bill, the Waxman-Markey code section should go back in. There is a good case to be made for keeping produced energy inside houses, which only building codes do, by ensuring that the builder down the street also has to conform to the same rule.

Image: Department of Energy

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About the Author

writes at CleanTechnica, CSP-Today, PV-Insider , SmartGridUpdate, and GreenProphet. She has also been published at Ecoseed, NRDC OnEarth, MatterNetwork, Celsius, EnergyNow, and Scientific American. As a former serial entrepreneur in product design, Susan brings an innovator's perspective on inventing a carbon-constrained civilization: If necessity is the mother of invention, solving climate change is the mother of all necessities! As a lover of history and sci-fi, she enjoys chronicling the strange future we are creating in these interesting times.    Follow Susan on Twitter @dotcommodity.



  • MD

    After living in the US for 10 years I can say this, the building codes suck and most of the materials you can buy for DIY are absolute junk… I routinely have my parents bring me building supplies from Canada, which are more stringently tested and built way better. UL and CSA approved.

  • http://blog.sustainablog.org Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    I agree with the principle of mandating efficiency in new building, Susan, but I hope any new codes don’t do so too prescriptively. There’s also got to be room to experiment… I really took that lesson to heart after watching _Garbage Warrior_, and also from watching the folks at the Dancing Rabbit eco-village leverage the lack of building code in their county into a “laboratory” for efficient, sustainable housing…

    • http://cleantechnica.com/author/susan Susan Kraemer

      There’s a point!

  • http://cleantechnica.com/author/susan Susan Kraemer

    I agree with you that given that there is no Big Architecture bending the Senate as there is for other sections in the climate legislation, it is strange that the building code got dropped.

    arch2030 has done great work, but they must have no clout as a lobby, sadly.

    I guess those states without any code REALLY don’t want one!

  • Edwin Swanson

    Those interested in our energy future ought to check out a paper recently appearing in ES&T journal at http://www.architecture2030.org/pdfs/CoalPhaseoutUS2030_full_EST.pdf . Some CT readers may wish to send comments to the journal.

    Section 2 is about the Building Sector. It seems most likely to succeed because the technologies and institutional processes are generally based on the diffuse relationships among building code officials, architects, innovative equipment suppliers, financial institutions, and investors. These relationships are largely within localized/regional businesses and local government jurisdictions; something less apt to be manipulated by Big Coal, Big Oil, etc. as it is done in the US Congress.

    As for the remaining parts of the paper, the authors focus on technical options, which are largely hostage of our centralized, minority-driven political albatross, the US Senate.

    With apologies to windmill advocates, I believe the options discussed in Sections 3 – 6 require considerable technical R&D and institutional analysis/restructuring; making expanded use of renewable and other energy sources far more uncertain and dependent on public sector research subsidies.

    Subsidized research is subject to the whim of Congress and the President, and as such, is a risky endeavor in the face of national opposition by the Big Bads. These guys are almost always corporate-sponsored (they use stockholder funds) and they hire pricey spin experts with covert media access. Then they stealthy create smokescreens, blaming problems on the Bad Greens, and that well-founded, Beneficial Change is a negative for USA jobs.

  • Haley Marquard

    I am having problem with the first link. It gives a 404 error?

    Thanks

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