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POLICYWATCH:
Bill falls short of some expectations

04/2008

By Alec Appelbaum

When the feds pass a law to fight climate change, you would expect architects, builders, and facilities managers on the front lines. After all, buildings produce 40 percent of our nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and since more than half the buildings likely to be in use in 2030 don’t yet exist, more robust government regulation could help spur needed innovations. But effective lobbying by the homebuilders’ industry made the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, signed into law in December, more tentative about efficiency than green-building advocates had hoped.

The Bill authorized the DOE to build a “sun wall” on a facade of its Washington D.C headquarters.
Image courtesy Solomon Cordwell Buenz
The Bill authorized the DOE to build a “sun wall” on a facade of its Washington D.C. headquarters.
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According to Ashok Gupta, who works with developers and architects as head of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s air and energy work in the Northeast, the bill ignores a lot of recent progress. His work shows, he says, that a New York office building can lower its energy costs today by 60 percent using “smart design and off-the-shelf technology.” Yet the bill’s standards, according to Gupta, mainly reflect consensus that progressive state governments have reached with manufacturers in the past decade.

The bill’s provisions pertaining to buildings are too modest. However, the Net-Zero Energy Commercial Buildings Initiative is one ambitious measure that would coordinate research to help designers and owners produce buildings that make as much energy as they use by 2030. That’s an exciting goal, points out Steven Selkowitz, head of the building technologies department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). But if Congress appropriates less than $200 million, some advocates worry that the net-zero initiative will have little reach.

Along with five industry organizations, LBNL founded a group called the Commercial Buildings Initiative (CBI) in 2006. The CBI coalition includes the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the U.S. Green Building Council, the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. This group plans to support the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help carry out the mission of the federal net-zero initiative. “A collaborative could span near-term deployment and long-term R&D,” Selkowitz says. “We’re advocating a system of real-time reporting that owners can compare to [performance] targets.”

That means new software for creating and managing buildings and scads of training for facilities staffs and local authorities around the country. The bill creates two new clearinghouses, one for high-performance commercial buildings and the other for government buildings. Selkowitz argues these resources send a clear, consistent message to developers. “A tax credit for a year or two isn’t a signal the commercial sector responds to over time.”

Other measures that might have provided incentives for energy efficiency and could have emboldened home-owners and developers alike ended up left out of the bill. “A package that included an extension of tax incentives on commercial buildings and a home-improvement tax credit got knocked out,” says Lowell Unger, who runs the ASE. Andrew Goldberg, who heads government affairs for the AIA and fought to get tax incentives for efficiency into the bill, says facts got lost in the shouting. “There was opposition from the National Association of Homebuilders that higher codes would cost more money. We’ve been demonstrating for 30 years that building green saves money in the long run, but it’s still an education process,” says Goldberg.

However, the market and growing concern about climate change may educate Congress quickly. “The strong push is going to come from non-law pressures,” says Dan Esty, a Yale University environmental law professor who advises multinational corporations on green strategy.

“What’s really driving green design is the price of oil and companies working very hard to lower their carbon footprint. The energy legislation is a first step toward helping, but way too little and way too late.”

Alec Appelbaum writes about design and cities for Architectural Record, New York, Fast Company, and others. He lives in Lower Manhattan, where his neighbors are trying to get inefficient heating under control.

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This article appeared in the April 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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