House Tackles Building Efficiency for Climate Fight

The Department of Energy points to Kaupuni Village in Oahu, Hawaii, as an example of home designs that incorporate energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to produce as much energy as they consume. (Photo by Kenneth Kelly/NREL via DOE)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Fossil fuel-dependent buildings account for more than a quarter of U.S. carbon emissions. Eyeing their contribution to climate change, and in turn the weather events that have wreaked more than $750 billion in damages across the country, experts testified Thursday before the House on the importance of getting homeowners to retrofit their properties with energy efficiency in mind.

Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable design for the engineering and planning firm HOK, pointed to ever-changing building codes as one hurdle to getting there.

Though members of the building industry update and improve national codes every three years, Landreneau noted that their adoption across the country is uneven.

“In fact, nearly half the country is still on the 2009, or an older energy code at the state level,” Landreneau said, testifying before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis hearing.

Among these states, she added, 11 are still relying on building codes from 2006.

“Half the country is building buildings that will consume energy for 60 or more years, on decade-old energy codes,” Landreneau said. “The U.S. is projected to construct 45 billion square feet over the next decade; the first step is simply to bring all of our states and cities up to the most current code.”

Khalil Shahyd, a senior policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, testified that low-income families were especially susceptible to archaic energy and building standards. Struggling families spend more than 20% of their incomes on electricity and heat, while the national average sits around 2.7%.

Another toll on energy costs comes from multifamily homes built 50 years ago, which are home to about half of low-income renters in the U.S., an estimated 10 million people. Energy costs and energy-related maintenance are the highest recurring expenditure for these families, saddling them with about $1,700 a year in utility bills.

Shahyd said split incentives also discourage renters and landlords from investing in more energy-efficient technologies. Tenants are more likely to move, giving them less of an incentive to spend their money on efficiency.

“In addition, rising energy costs place an additional burden on families that have little flexibility in their household budgets to meet their needs,” Shahyd testified. “According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, retail residential electricity rates have risen across the nation at a rate of about 4% on average over the last 10 years — faster even than the rise in average rent cost.”

Representative Jared Huffman, D-Cal., asked if there was a federal policy or incentive to address antiquated building codes in the nation. While states haven’t adopted codes willingly, insurance agencies possibly could be an avenue to incentivize a uniform building code.

Landreneau said any type of new incentive to help states get to the newest code would be progress. Adopting the 2021 code, which has removed barriers for tall timber construction that allows for low-carbon bodied buildings, would put the nation on the path to meeting its low-carbon goals.

“I certainly think replicating the 2009 program that incentivizes states to adopt the latest energy code would be a great model to follow,” Landreneau said. “I can’t speak to the insurance industry, but yes I think they could certainly go around legislation.”

Other experts called to testify Thursday were Kara Rinaldi, vice president of government affairs and policy for the Building Performance Association; Roy Wright, president of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety; and Jimmy Rutland, president of Lowder New Homes in Alabama.

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