New US Buildings to Slash Energy and Emissions Footprint

In a move that could significantly decrease US energy use and associated emissions, building officials voted on the first of November to increase the efficiency of typical buildings 30% by the year 2012. By making this improvement to the International Energy Conservation Code, builders hope to slash energy and emissions while saving homeowners money on their heat and electricity bills. The decision has been welcomed by environmentalists and climate hawks who take it as an indicator that shrinking the nation’s carbon footprint is possible even in the face of inaction from Congress.

Though International Energy Conservation Code standards are not technically binding, last year’s federal stimulus package required that states which accepted funding from the State Energy Program comply 90% with these standards by the year 2017. Since almost every state in the US accepted these funds, new buildings almost everywhere in the country will be bound to the new standards. Thanks to improved insulation, more efficient heating and lighting systems, and other measures, buildings will consume less energy and be responsible for fewer emissions. Currently residential buildings consumer 21% of the energy in the US, and 38% of US greenhouse emissions can be traced back to buildings.

A few states, like California, already have energy efficiency standards for buildings—and have seen big benefits as a result. Measures adopted to increase building efficiency in California during the 70s helped the state avoid a wave of new nuclear power plants, and contributed to California’s status as a national leader in using energy wisely. Homes in California now use about half as much energy on average as in the United States at large. Yet most other states have not seriously attempted to duplicate this success. The new national standards mean homeowners in almost every state will begin paying less on their electricity bills.

Unsurprisingly, the story of the new building efficiency code and its impact on energy and emissions hasn’t made it big in the mainstream media. However blogs devoted to energy issues have picked it up, and begun to speculate that the standards could go a ways toward allowing the US to meet greenhouse emissions reduction goals set by the Obama administration. Furthermore the standard doesn’t come tied to giveaways to the nuclear, offshore oil drilling, and “clean coal” industries—all of which were attached to this year’s failed national climate bill in attempts to compromise with energy lobbyists.

It may turn out there are simpler and better ways to reduce energy use and emissions than working through Congress. And though lack of a federal comprehensive energy policy is frustrating, all is not loss simply because members of the US Senate and House of Representatives can’t seem to agree on a climate bill. Making buildings more efficient is just one example of how the US can move forward to reduce its energy and emissions footprint—and in the last week that goal received a major boost.

Photo credit: Gregg O'Connell