Recently, there has been a good deal of media attention given to building energy codes, generally and specifically, the codes provision of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), both good and bad. A couple of these articles piqued my interest by asking if building energy codes should be a matter of federal importance or if it should be left to states and localities.

I am fascinated by this issue, as before coming to NRDC I worked in the commercial building industry where beating code was how you were evaluated as an engineer. The sum of those energy decisions made by architects, engineers, and builders drive the largest portion of our energy consumption and our national energy policy. Much of the recent press has focused on the feds taking responsibility for something that has historically been a matter of local concern, but this miscasts the issue. In fact, since 1992 the federal government has required states to adopt energy codes for commercial buildings, but let’s move to the philosophical question. Who guides the decision makers in the building process — the federal government, the state government, or the building industry? How strong is the case for a national energy code?

The situation now

A little background: right now model energy codes are set by private non-profit organizations (IECC and ASHRAE) about every three years. States can adopt these codes or write their own (as California does). This system has not been very successful (take a look at all the blank spots on the BCAP code maps for commercial and residential codes).

ACES will fix this by:

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  • Creating a national building energy code set by the Department of Energy (which could be based on the codes written by ASHRAE and IECC)
  • Setting targets for 30 percent more efficient new buildings after the bill is enacted, 50 percent in 2014/15, and then at least 5 percent in each following version
  • Providing funding for states to actually enforce the codes (novel idea!)
  • Allowing the DOE to enforce the codes if a state fails to do so

 The bill will not infringe on a state’s right to go above and beyond the national code. Leading states like California and Massachusetts (where consumers have been saving money without hurting the building industry for years) could still go above and beyond the national code.

Why do we need a national building energy code?

1 – Because more efficient buildings save consumers money

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It is hard to fathom how someone would decide not to invest a little bit of money now for a lot of money later, but that is exactly the argument that is made against building energy codes. An inefficient house might be cheaper up front but will waste tens of thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the mortgage. An efficient house is a much better decision. The same principle applies in commercial buildings.

Consumers probably would make the right decision if given the choice, but they aren’t the ones deciding. In most cases, the builder decides how efficient a building will be and the asking price is the foremost concern on their mind. To keep the price low, some builders create the worst possible building that the law will allow. The code makes sure that this building is still a good decision for the buyer and for everyone that uses energy. Consumers shouldn’t have to pay for a builder to cut corners on efficiency.

2 – Because new buildings matter

I’ve heard it stated several times that new buildings are a small fraction of energy use compared to existing buildings. The conclusion that is often drawn from this statement is that we should only focus on efficiency in existing buildings and let new buildings (and builders) get a free pass. Maybe those that draw this conclusion think that the housing market will never recover and that new development will cease, but this is not an opinion that many share.

The simple fact of the matter is that we can’t afford to give new buildings a free pass because it’s much more expensive to retrofit a building than to just build it right the first time. Building an inefficient home today commits us all to either wasting money on energy for decades and contributing to global climate change or footing the bill for an expensive retrofit later. Building it right the first time is a much better option and protects consumers and taxpayers.

In the context of global climate change, reducing emissions today and emissions in 2050 are critically important. The buildings we build today can last for a century or more and we can’t continue to put off efficiency and waste energy. Just think of the 25 years of inefficient homes we could have avoided if a national code had been implemented in the 80s when the discussions first began. Let’s stop making the same mistakes and thinking the problem will take care of itself.

3 – Because “just leave us alone” means “just let us keep taking your money”

Debates over energy efficiency and specifically codes and standards often degenerate into “why don’t you just leave us alone?” I often wonder who exactly it is that needs be left alone if consumers are saving money and the benefits to the country are huge.

The codes provision of ACES doesn’t tell consumers they can’t do anything. It does tell the worst builders they can’t continue to make inefficient buildings and stick the buyer with the energy bill. The code will help consumers say “stop wasting my money.” While the bill’s opponents may like to portray efficiency advocates as controlling tree-huggers trying to tell normal folks how to live, the reality is that certain interests are fighting to protect the system that allows them to profit at the expense of consumers.

4 – Because when the power company needs a new power plant to run all the inefficient homes, you have to pay for it

The opponents of a cap on carbon like to pretend that if we don’t act, then energy prices will just stay right where they are. Those folks are also generally opposed to building codes and efficiency standards. This doesn’t make any sense. If inefficient buildings continue to be built and use the worst equipment, then energy demand will skyrocket. So to get more juice, the power company is going to try to build a new power plant and the utility customers are going to pay for it. In the case of natural gas, prices just skyrocket. You never get to say “just leave me alone” when the bill comes.

5 – Because someone who answers to the people should decide how to build our homes and offices

Building codes are only a matter of local concern if the local government is motivated to make a decision to protect its citizens. When the local representatives don’t make a decision, then builders decide how to build local homes and workplaces, and they don’t always have the best consumer’s interest at heart.

Even if the state has made a decision and adopted a good code, it may not always have the ability to update when a new version comes out. Or worse, the opponents of efficiency could have weakened the code the state adopts. Consumers lose money in either situation. A baseline national energy code and funds for states to actually enforce the code will keep this from happening.

6 – Because states have done a (mostly) bad job

I already mentioned this, but the BCAP maps make this point very clearly. Blank spots mean no code and lighter colors mean older codes.

It is hard to understand how anyone can decry additional federal attention, direction, and funding for energy codes given the spotty track record of the states. A map that is completely filled in is not too much to ask given the importance of buildings to our national energy policy.

7 – Because the consequences of wasting energy do not follow state lines

We live in a time of national electric grids and global energy prices. One state’s failure to save energy in buildings raises rates for everyone else. We are already paying higher energy prices right now because we did not enact policies that promote energy efficiency when we should have. Enough is enough.

What’s next?

The case for a national energy code is very strong. We know how crucial good codes are to our national energy policy and we know that inefficient buildings are a drain on our economy and drive greenhouse gas emissions. The champions of ACES have recognized this and put a policy in place that will create a floor for states and code organizations so that we don’t keep missing opportunities to save.

The stakes are way too high for us to pretend like we don’t need to fix a broken system. We need energy efficiency and aggressive building energy codes to help us bring down the cost of reducing carbon emissions and save consumers money. We can’t afford to be distracted by the interests protecting the status quo or those who want to hold fast to a failed process for purely ideological reasons. It is time to move forward.