How will Obama’s energy polices affect our homes? We won’t really know until his proposals are debated and enacted by congress, but we can get a sense of what might happen from his campaign’s position statements. From his campaign website’s fact sheet his stated position on building energy efficiency is as follows:
“Obama…will establish a goal of making all new buildings carbon neutral, or produce zero emissions, by 2030. [He] will also establish a national goal of improving new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade to help us meet the 2030 goal.”
This is straight from the playbook of Ed Mazra’s Architecture 2030 Challenge. As evidenced by the following quote from the 2030 website, the 2030 Challenge is predicated on climate change and the reduction of green house gas emissions associated with the Building Sector.
“Rapidly accelerating climate change (global warming), which is caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is now fueling dangerous regional and global environmental events. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration illustrates that buildings are responsible for almost half (48%) of all GHG emissions annually. Seventy-six percent of all electricity generated by US power plants goes to supply the Building Sector. Therefore, immediate action in the Building Sector is essential if we are to avoid hazardous climate change.”
I have two issues with the 2030 Challenge.
One is that the 48% responsibility for GHG emissions attributed to buildings is overstated. The emissions assigned to the building sector are primarily the indirect result of drawing on electrical power generated from coal and natural gas fired power plants, so the question becomes whether to focus our resources on the building “demand” side, or the power plant “supply” side, or some combination of both. In that broader context, we may find that it is much easier to deal with a few hundred power plants than to transform 150 million residential and commerical buildings. From a public policy perspective, both the demand and supply side should be considered as a synergistic whole.
My second issue is more fundamental. Architecture 2030 asks and answers the wrong question. The question that Architecture 2030 asks is what actions should we take to mitigate the effect of the building sector on climate change. However, the greater question is what actions should we take to render the building sector sustainable. Once sustainability is on the table then we have to consider carrying capacity and carrying capacity overshoot at which point climate change is just another canary in the coal mine.
Carrying capacity is all about the ecological limits (capacity) of our planet’s resources and sinks. By considering GHG emissions as the primary driver for building energy improvements, policy makers are overlooking the much more immediate and serious resource issues of peak oil and gas. Since both of these peak events will be evident as early as 2010, all buildings should be built or retrofitted to a net zero energy and carbon standard NOW, not 22 years from now.
However, I digress. Since it will take the actual emergency of these peaking events to mobilize the political will to enact a national zero energy standard, the question is what can we expect when Obama takes office next year.
The first likely step will be to start the process of improving building efficiency by 50% through our building codes. A significant improvement is already in the works for the residential sector with the IECC 2009. However, at this time, the 30% improvement authored by the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, will only be a voluntary appendix to the next release of the code. In addition, once the new code is released, it has to be reviewed and adopted by hundreds of city, county, and state authorities. In the process, these authorities often dumb down new energy code provisions in response to local politics. We can also expect a major push back from a decimated housing sector deeply concerned about adding any new code mandated building costs.
My best guess is that under Obama, the voluntary 30% improvement provision authored by Energy Efficient Codes Coalition will be supported by Obama’s Grant Program for Early Adopters policy proposal. This proposal creates a competitive grant program for states and localities that “take the first steps in implementing new building codes that prioritize energy efficiency, and provides a federal match for those states with leading-edge public benefits funds that support energy efficiency retrofits of existing buildings.”
The grant proposal creates a policy that respects local politics and helps to support those areas of country that have the political will to move forward with improving building energy efficiency.