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Nick Zigelbaum’s Blog

Strategies to Promote Energy Efficiency in Buildings: Laggards

Nick Zigelbaum

Posted October 8, 2009 in Solving Global Warming

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Following my previous post on Strategies for Promoting Energy Efficiency in Buildings, I'd like to elaborate on the first bullet, or the far left of the curve. In this portion of the building market, we have the laggards and the baseline builders. These are buildings that are either non-compliant with locally enforced mandatory codes or simply poorly built in an area lacking any mandatory codes.

In the US, building energy codes are developed by two bodies, the International Codes Council (ICC) and the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-Condition (ASHRAE). The ICC produces the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to govern low-rise residential and ASHRAE produces Standard 90.1 to cover commercial and high-rise residential. These are what we call the National Model Codes.

Every three years (or so) the model codes are updated to incorporate current technologies and best practices. The last revision of the IECC (2009) is projected to save 12-15% over the 2006 version and the 2004 version of 90.1 saves 14% over the 1999 version. Until recently, as noted, the model codes did not make very significant improvements in efficiency. Although they are now moving in the right direction, there are two severe flaws with the structure of their development and implementation.

1.      ASHRAE and ICC are membership, consensus-based organizations. This means that they are not controlled by the American people who buy, own and operate the buildings they write codes for. No matter how strong we want these codes to be, they can't be changed by anyone but their own members.

2.      States can't be required to adopt the most stringent versions, despite the obvious energy efficiency incentives to do so. There is simply no incentive or penalty from the federal government to get states to adopt these codes. Without a carrot or a stick, some states don't do anything.

To tackle the first problem, NRDC is working with groups like the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition (EECC) to lobby ASHRAE and ICC to create better codes and get their membership out to vote. The recent gains in the 2009 IECC are due directly to EECC's efforts pushing the 30% Solution. In addition, the current version of the House climate bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES, HR. 2454) has a provision that would require the model codes make 30% and 50% increases in efficiency by 2011 and 2014.

For the second issue, NRDC worked on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to include a provision that incents states to update their codes. States could only get grant money for State Energy Programs if they committed to updating their codes to the latest model codes and achieve 90% compliance with such codes in the future. See Lane Burt's blog for more on which states have applied for funding.

Beyond the ARRA funding and ACES, however, nothing is currently in place to ensure states will adopt future model codes and that they will be stronger. Considering the potential gains from ACES and the EECC, there is real opportunity to move the laggards and baseline. However, without action at the state level, builders may be allowed to continue selling the cheapest homes to buy and most expensive homes to own.

Next up: Advanced State Codes.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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