Climate action begins at home. (Literally. With houses.)

cartoon pig laying bricksYou remember the story of the Three Little Pigs. First the little pigs built themselves a house out of straw, but the big, bad wolf huffed and puffed and blew it down. Barely escaping with their lives, the little pigs built a new house out of sticks, but again the big, bad wolf blew it down. Wiser at last, the little pigs built their third house out of brick, and they lived happily ever after because the wolf could not blow it down.

When you were a child, you probably did not realize what must be obvious to you now: the story is really about the importance of building codes. Shoddy construction brings nothing but grief, as the little pigs learned, and in the end it costs you more than if you had used high-quality materials right from the start.

The story is silent on whether our young porcine heroes also concerned themselves with the energy performance of their house, but it stands to reason they would have taken an interest in the U factors of windows and the R values of wall and ceiling insulation. Their experience with tropical storm-force wolf breath would have given them an appreciation for the snuggest possible construction. Possibly they even went on to put solar panels on their roof and an electric vehicle in the garage, but on this we can only speculate.

I bring up this story now because Virginia is in the final stages of adopting an update to its residential building code, a process the Board of Housing and Community Development undertakes every three years. In addition to ensuring the safety of wiring and plumbing and so forth, the Uniform Statewide Building Code sets standards that determine whether a new home is drafty and expensive to heat and cool, or will be comfortable, healthy and frugal with energy.

Remarkably, the board is currently proposing to continue outdated efficiency standards dating back years instead of adopting the more energy-saving provisions of the latest International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), or even going beyond the IECC to Earth Craft or Passive House standards.

In spite of the global pretensions of its name, the IECC is a national model code. Virginia law specifically instructs the board to refer to the IECC in adopting provisions that permit buildings to be constructed at least cost “consistent with recognized standards of health, safety, energy conservation and water conservation.” The code suggests that the board may go beyond the IECC for purposes of health and safety, but should not fall short of its standards.

So why is the board proposing lower standards? As far as we know, there is no wolf lobby advocating for flimsy homes, but there is a homebuilder lobby doing its own share of huffing and puffing — and Virginia’s code adoption process gives the homebuilders an outsized role in the decision-making process.

Better-insulated houses cost builders slightly more to build. They pass along the added costs if they can, but if buyers won’t pay more, the higher costs cut into profits. This being bad for business, builders prefer to lobby for lower standards that are cheaper to meet, insisting they have only the poor buyers’ pocketbooks at heart.

Their argument is, if you will pardon the expression, hogwash. Research demonstrates that houses built to the highest efficiency standards save far more money on energy over time than they add to the upfront cost of the house. This becomes especially important for occupants who don’t make much money and who struggle to afford utility bills.

The board should ignore homebuilder objections and put the needs of building occupants first. Gov. Ralph Northam made it clear with his Executive Order 43 last fall that the commonwealth is now committed to a path of clean energy and energy efficiency. Bringing energy costs down for residents is not a side effect of the energy transition, but a feature. As he noted in the order, “Low-income households pay proportionately more than the average household for energy costs and often experience negative long-term effects on their health and welfare.”

The climate crisis also makes it urgent that we use building codes to reduce our fossil fuel use. The Virginia Clean Economy Act will transition the electric sector to clean energy, but it does not require buildings to become more efficient. This is a problem because buildings represent 40 percent of all energy use and houses typically last between 40 and 100 years.

Some retrofits can be made later, at higher cost, but the cheapest and simplest approach is to build houses snugly to begin with. They should also be sited with solar in mind and have wiring in place to make solar easy. Ultimately (and “ultimately” has got to be pretty darn soon), we have to start building homes that produce as much energy as they use.

The board is accepting comments on its proposal through June 26. The Sierra Club has set up a webpage to forward comments urging the board to adopt high efficiency standards.

Update July 1: The Board of Housing and Community Development is no longer accepting written comments from the public on its proposed updates to the building code. Advocates may write to Governor Northam asking him to insist that the Board at least adopt the provisions of the 2018  International Energy Conservation Code, and additional measures recommended by the Sierra Club’s comments to the Board to save more energy and combat climate change.  

An earlier version of this article appeared originally in the Virginia Mercury on June 23, 2020.

COVID-19 throws a lemon at Virginia’s plan for an energy transition. It’s time for lemonade.

solar panels on a school roof

The solar panels on Wilson Middle School are saving money for Augusta County taxpayers. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures.

In mid-March, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to transition our economy from fossil fuels to clean energy over the coming years. Two weeks later, Virginia shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the businesses whose very existence is now in peril are the energy efficiency companies and solar installers we will be counting on to get us off fossil fuels.

Home weatherization and energy efficiency programs have come to an almost complete halt in Virginia, including programs run by Dominion Energy Virginia. Nationwide, the energy efficiency sector has lost almost 70,000 jobs. Meanwhile, companies that install solar, especially rooftop systems, report plummeting sales. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that nationally, 55 percent of solar workers are already laid off or suffering cutbacks.

The timing seems terrible — although to be fair, there’s no good time for an economy-crushing, worldwide pandemic. Eventually, however, the virus will run its course or be defeated through vaccine or cure. At that point, we will face a choice: we can stagger blinking out into the sunlight aimlessly wondering now what?, or we can execute the well-developed plan we have spent these weeks and months formulating.

Let’s go with the second option.

First, it’s worth remembering that nothing happening now will change the trajectory of clean energy. Solar and wind had banner years in 2019, continuing their steady march to dominance. Wind has become the largest single source of electricity in two states, Iowa and Kansas. The island of Kauai in Hawaii is now 56 percent powered by renewable energy, mostly solar. Across the U.S. wind, solar and hydro produce more electricity than coal. Wind is the cheapest form of new electric generation nationally; solar takes pride of place in Virginia.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel is even more firmly on its way out. Six of the top seven U.S. coal companies have gone into bankruptcy since 2015. That was before the lockdown sent energy demand down, further hurting high-priced coal.

Fracked gas helped kill coal but is itself vulnerable to price competition from renewables. Odd as it sounds, the collapse in oil prices will make natural gas more expensive. That’s because oil producers in Texas and North Dakota are closing wells that produced natural gas along with oil. The tightening supply of gas may finally make fracking companies in Appalachia profitable, but it means higher prices for utilities. Wind and solar will just keep looking better.

The Trump administration is still trying futilely to hold back the tide, but the U.S. will get a lot farther riding the wave than struggling against it. Congressional leaders should declare the country “all in” on clean energy. Instead of bailing out the highly polluting fossil fuel industries, they should put that money to work creating more jobs and economic development — and actually doing something about climate change — with energy efficiency and renewables.

Congress should return the Investment Tax Credit for solar (and offshore wind) to the 30 percent level in effect last year and keep it there, instead of continuing the phase-out now in effect. Congress should also give solar owners the option of taking the credit as a cash grant, as it did during the last recession, and for the same reason: tax-based incentives are less useful in a recession, when companies can’t use the credits.

Virginia’s Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have a critical role to play in convincing their colleagues to support solar. So far neither is rising to the task.

On the state level, Northam did the right thing in signing this year’s energy legislation, allowing utilities and industry members to start planning for the future. But the Clean Economy Act gets wind and solar off to a very slow start; Dominion doesn’t have to build Virginia solar for five years yet. And though the new laws remove many policy constraints on customer-sited solar, they offer next to nothing in the way of financial incentives.

Governor Northam should make it clear he intends to make rooftop solar a priority for next year, along with projects on closed landfills, former coal mine areas, and other brownfields, with a special focus on areas hardest-hit economically. He can also encourage corporations that do business in Virginia to meet their sustainability goals with Virginia wind and solar, starting right now.

The governor should also prioritize building efficiency. Virginia will be adopting a new residential building code this year, and if past years are any indication, its energy efficiency provisions will fall short of the most recent model code standard. It’s up to the governor to make sure Virginia adopts the full code.

Local governments are already taking advantage of suddenly-empty buildings to accelerate maintenance and repairs. But it’s a good time to think bigger, with new financing tools available that make energy efficiency retrofits and solar facilities cash-positive right from the start.

Energy performance contracting allows the energy savings to pay for retrofits. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy keeps a list of pre-qualified energy service companies and offers expertise to help local government employees navigate the process.

This year’s legislation also greatly expanded local governments’ ability to finance on-site solar through third-party power purchase agreements, effective July 1. The PPAs are structured so that a school district, municipality or any commercial or non-profit customer can have a solar array installed at no cost, paying just for the energy produced.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for PPAs to install solar on more than a hundred sites, including schools and other government buildings. The county’s contract is “rideable,” which allows other counties and cities to piggyback, getting the same terms without the need for new contract negotiations.

Unfortunately, local governments in southwest Virginia are prevented from pursuing PPAs — not by state legislation, which allows it starting July 1, but by a contract with Appalachian Power that governs their electricity purchases from the utility. The contract is up for renewal this year; disgracefully, APCo is refusing to agree to new terms allowing the localities to use solar PPAs. APCo should back off, and let local governments in economically depressed southwest Virginia start saving money and supporting solar jobs this year.

Arlington County has gone beyond on-site solar, contracting for a share of a large solar farm in southern Virginia that will provide more than 80 percent of the electricity for county government operations. It’s a model any locality can adopt.

Virginia residents and businesses also have good reasons to focus on clean energy. The enforced down-time many people are experiencing means more time to research options, and companies are motivated to offer low prices on energy efficiency upgrades and rooftop solar.

The federal government offers more generous tax credits this year than next. Credits for residential energy efficiency equipment and a deduction for energy efficient commercial buildings expire at the end of this year.

The investment tax credit for solar (as well as for geothermal heat pumps, fuel cells and small wind turbines) stands at 26% for projects placed in operation this year, but it will drop to 22% in 2021. It falls to 10% for commercial customers and disappears altogether for residential customers in 2022. If Congress acts to raise the credit to 30%, buyers will get an even bigger boost. If it doesn’t, there will be a rush this year to get projects done by the end of the year, so customers should secure their place in line now.

Virginia nonprofits have helped hundreds of residents and businesses save money on solar and EV chargers through bulk purchasing programs. Virginia Solar United Neighbors just announced a series of virtual information sessions to promote the Arlington Solar EV Co-op. And LEAP, which closed operations temporarily due to the virus, reports it has restarted two programs, Solarize NOVA and Solarize Piedmont.

In an ideal world, the U.S. would already be well along in executing a comprehensive plan for a clean energy transition, one that includes job retraining for workers, and that resists counterproductive efforts to save the fossil fuel industry. But we can do the next best thing, and use the tools of government, the market and consumer choice to speed us in the right direction.

COVID-19 has handed all of us a big, fat lemon. Let’s make some lemonade.

 

A version of this article appeared originally in the Virginia Mercury on April 30, 2020.

 

McDonnell administration set to fail Virginians on building codes

Everyone agrees that cutting energy waste is the most cost-effective way to meet our energy needs while reducing reliance on fossil fuels. And making new buildings efficient from the start is the surest way to achieve energy savings. Energy efficiency is the Mom-and-apple-pie part of our energy policy. Who could oppose it?

The Home Builders Association of Virginia, for one. They would rather build cheap housing than efficient housing, even when high utility bills turn cheap housing into expensive housing.

Bowing to aggressive lobbying from the home builders, the Board of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) has backed away from the national model building code provisions that would have improved the efficiency of Virginia residences by as much as 27.4%, according to a U.S. Department of Energy analysis. And, the McDonnell administration has signed off on the weak regulations. Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development has proposed a watered-down code that is currently open to public comment until September 29.

The McDonnell administration prides itself on fiscal prudence and its love for the business community. Here is a case where fiscal prudence demands tough love. A watered-down code means money wasted.

The model code provisions would have required higher “R” values in ceiling and wall insulation, resulting in homes that cost less to heat and cool. It would also have required builders to check for leaks mechanically, rather than just eyeballing it, to catch air leaks while they can still be fixed. The code that Virginia is set to pass jettisons these improvements, and others.

It’s cheaper for builders to skimp on insulation and not worry about air leakage, but the result is a home of lower quality and value. Owners and tenants end up having to pay more to keep warm in winter, and cool in the summer. These higher utility costs paid by occupants quickly eclipse the savings to builders.

What’s more, the cost of fixing defects later is much greater than building the house right to start with. Drafty houses are a classic example of the need for strong building codes, because sealing and insulation aren’t visible to buyers, and trying to add them later is difficult and expensive.

Customers who are buying brand-new homes have the right to expect a quality product. Virginians should tell the Department not to waste this opportunity to improve our housing stock for years to come.

A strong building code will also reduce Virginia’s reliance on fossil fuels and help low and moderate-income residents in one of the most cost-effective ways possible. Housing built for the low-end market is particularly vulnerable to poor construction. Buyers usually don’t know where corners have been cut, or don’t care because they plan to rent out the buildings and won’t themselves shoulder the high utility bills.

Some builders do cater to sophisticated buyers with homes that meet higher standards, but the vast majority stick only to what the code requires. Utility bills consume a disproportionate share of the income of residents with low and moderate incomes, and can also be a particular burden for seniors and others on fixed incomes. The failure to keep pace with the national model code means a missed opportunity to help homeowners across the state, as well as future owners and tenants.

The more rigorous model code standards would result in some additional upfront cost to buyers, but the Department of Energy calculates that savings on utility bills would more than cover the additional payment on a mortgage. Over 30 years, the average consumer would see more than $5,000 in savings.

Unfortunately, the pressure from the home builder lobby has resulted in a proposal with greatly weakened provisions that mean most new homes will remain unnecessarily expensive to heat and cool.

Virginians should not have to live with leaky, inefficient homes. The Department of Housing and Community Development should restore and adopt the full 2012 model building code standards, to improve our housing stock now and for the future.