Here in D.C., we’re deadlocked (thanks largely to Republicans beholden to Big Oil) over no-brainers like taking back $13.5 billion in giveaways to Big Oil in order to fund the extension of key clean energy tax incentives and forestall a crash in the renewable energy industry. Meanwhile, cities, states, and counties continue to take the lead in putting in place the kind of progressive, innovative policy solutions that we can only dream of at the federal level for the time being.

A great example of the continuing groundswell of local government action to combat global warming happened just yesterday in Montgomery County, Maryland — a wealthy suburban area just across the D.C. line.

The county council passed a series of seven bills that make up a package of 25 far-reaching environmental initiatives designed to help slash the county’s global warming emissions.

The centerpiece of the county’s Earth Day legislative extravaganza is a mandate requiring all new homes built after January 2010 to meet federal Energy Star standards. This would help cut residential energy use some 15-30 percent — cutting both emissions and consumers’ energy bills.

Underscoring the huge principal-agent problem when it comes to energy efficiency in construction (residential or otherwise), home builders expressed their vehement opposition to the measure. They did receive a concession in the form of a one-year delay in the measure’s start date, as well as a possible off-ramp. Ultimately, however, they weren’t able to derail it — as is often the case in always-volatile debates regarding building codes.

The home builders whipped out the principal argument one hears in opposition to environmental and energy initiatives these days:

“[Home builders] are not opposed to better building; we’re opposed to imposing a mandate that the market is unwilling to pay for,” said a lobbyist for the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association.

Read: Only "the market" knows best, and we’re not opposed to X, so long as anyone doesn’t actually make us do anything. In this case, the something would only raise the cost of building the average new home in the county 1.25 percent, or about $10,000.

I’m no economist, but I think that an additional $10,000 on top of $800,000 (the average price of constructing a new home in the county) is probably a) not going to ward off buyers and b) likely to have a pretty quick payback period. In fact, I might even go out on a limb and say that if someone could afford an $800,000 house, they might also be able to do some quick cipherin’ and figure out that this small upfront investment is well worth the long-term energy savings. This is particularly likely to be the case in Montgomery County, where electricity rates recently shot up by nearly 40 percent in just one year.

Other efforts approved by the County Council:

  • Development of a climate protection plan, including community education and outreach, tree canopy initiative, telecommuting action plan and an energy cost savings plan for each county building
  • Studies and recommendations regarding conversion of the current energy tax into a carbon tax, a renewable energy action plan, joining an emissions “cap and trade” program, creation of a sustainable energy fund, adoption of an energy efficiency code for commercial buildings, entering into or providing incentives for a car share agreement, improving the average County fleet fuel economy, and incentives for energy efficiency improvements in the private sector
  • Property tax credits for solar and geothermal energy devices and energy conservation devices
  • Disclosure of utility costs and energy efficiency information when a home is sold
  • Use of biofuels for county vehicle fleet
  • Elimination (or justification for use) of SUVs in the county fleet
  • Inclusion of climate change as a factor in drafting Planning Board’s master plans
  • Require the Office of Consumer Protection to advocate for the lowest energy rates consistent with environmental stewardship

All of this is part of the county’s plan to meet the goal it agreed to as part of the Sierra Club’s Cool Counties initiative — reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050.

The Cool Counties initiative, modeled on our wildly successful Cool Cities initiative, launched last July under the leadership of King County (Wash.), Nassau County (N.Y.), and Fairfax County (Va.). The other founding counties are some of the largest in the country, including Cook (Ill.), Hennpenin (Minn.), Miami-Dade, Montgomery and Arlington (Va.), Dane (Wis.), and Shelby (Tenn.).