SUSTAINABILITY STARTS AT HOME â€” Most of us have been spending a lot more time at home lately, but even before the pandemic we were indoors 90 percent of the time. Keeping the lights on and maintaining a comfortable temperature inside takes a lot of energy, and efforts to reduce that demand find bipartisan support, a rare bright spot in contentious debates over climate change policy. Energy efficiency presents a classic win-win scenario â€” it can lower homeownersâ€™ utility bills and reduce pollution â€” but is still a difficult area in which to legislate. Broader disagreements over energy and climate change often get in the way of efforts to enact programs that encourage homeowners to invest in new appliances or install new windows and installation.
â€śThere is an energy crisis in our homes. If you have a home with skyrocketing utility bills, familiesâ€™ financial stability gets jeopardized,â€ť said Jacob Corvidae, a principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Stimulus steps: The need for another economic stimulus may show whether Congress can make progress on efficiency, while sidestepping the thornier issues. In their latest infrastructure bill Monday, House Democrats included the HOMES Act introduced last year by Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and David McKinley (R-W.Va.). It would provide rebates of up to $4,000 to people who renovate their homes to reduce energy use. McKinley and Welch hope to build on that legislation Wednesday when they introduce a separate bill to establish a $500 million online training program for contractors who perform efficiency retrofits. These contractors have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic because their job requires in-person visits, and the sheer volume of older, inefficient homes means lots of opportunities for new jobs in the future.
Electrify everything? Installing new windows or insulation is one thing, but some activists say efficiency is not enough. A growing movement is urging homebuilders and cities to eliminate fossil energy from homes altogether, including things like natural gas furnaces or stoves. A May report by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that in homes with gas stoves, nitrogen dioxide levels can be up to 400 percent higher than in those with electric stoves, increasing the risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases â€” particularly among children. Lower-income populations also are more likely to live in homes with faulty ventilation, increasing their risk as well, according to the Institute.
Meanwhile, heating and cooling residential and commercial buildings account for about 12 percent of the countryâ€™s total emissions, according to the EPA. The American Gas Association points out that gas appliances have “excellent safety records” and EPA has not identified gas stoves as a major indoor air quality concern.
Mortgages may be the answer: Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae â€” the federal agencies that buy and guarantee mortgages, package them and sell them off as securities to Wall Street â€” have sold billions of dollars worth of green bonds backed by loans to apartment building owners who agree to make energy upgrades. Corvidae and David Heslam, executive director of the nonprofit Earth Advantage, say the same approach can be applied to single-family homes, but there isn’t enough data right now.
Heslamâ€™s group is working with the Department of Energy and state agencies on its Green Building Registry to catalogue homes certified to meet certain energy-savings benchmarks. The database could grow significantly if Freddie and Fannie direct home energy scores to be part of the real estate appraisal market.
Research shows that homes with lower utility bills have lower default risks, but Heslam says that mortgage lenders donâ€™t consider these factors when making loans. In the meantime, Heslam and Corvidae are pushing cities and states to require home energy scores during real estate transactions, including refinancing.
â€śFor years, this information wasnâ€™t available,â€ť Corvidae said. â€śLooking at past utility bills raised concerns, because past usage is so dependent on the behavior of prior owners. But now, there are ways to automate an estimation of what someoneâ€™s utility bill will be based on the building itself. We have the tools to do that for every home in the U.S.â€ť
Welcome to The Long Game! Be sure to catch up on last week’s issue, devoted to environmental justice, in case you missed it. This week, we’re looking at energy efficiency and the latest in sustainable building designs. We want to know what you think and what weâ€™re missing. We wonâ€™t take anything personally, promise. Send tips, critiques and all your sustainability questions â€” and answers â€” to [emailÂ protected] and [emailÂ protected]. Find us on Twitter @ceboudreau and @nickjuliano. Did someone forward this to you? Subscribe here!
Last week, we asked how we can ensure marginalized communities are prioritized when policymakers and activists push for climate action. Several of you raised concerns about the food and animal agriculture industries. Laura Lee Cascada, campaigns director at the Better Food Foundation, said environmental justice must include food justice, because people of color are more likely to live in food deserts where it is difficult to find affordable, healthy produce. Cailen LaBarge, an attorney in Boston, said the permitting process for new livestock facilities must consider the environmental effects on communities that have been historically disenfranchised.
This week, we want to know: Many people assume that achieving sustainability goals involves imposing new regulations. But could removing them also advance those goals? Help us identify what rules or regulations should be eliminated, and how that would promote sustainability, and we may feature your responses in the next newsletter.
A goal of sustainable construction is to design a â€śnet zeroâ€ť home that can offset its energy use through a combination of on-site renewable energy, ultra-efficient appliances and extra-insulated windows. Expect to see more of this kind of construction in the coming years, led by states like California.
THE SHIFT TOWARD LOW-CARBON BUILDING MATERIALS â€” Globally, raw materials used for construction contribute about 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Green Building Council. In order to meet Paris Climate targets, the industry must slash this â€śembodied carbonâ€ť and design buildings without steel, concrete and gravel, the Council says. Innovations that started in Europe are gaining traction in the U.S, including in the glass, wood and hemp industries that tout themselves as sustainable alternatives.
Homes built atop glass: Glavel, a Vermont-based startup, plans to take recycled glass, grind it into powder and combine it with a foaming agent so it can be a substitute for stone gravel, which is used under building foundations and roads. Aside from Glavel, only one other company in the U.S. has adopted the model, and it plans to open two new plants in the Northeast and Southeast. Ron Conboy, founder and CEO of Glavel, told The Long Game that he is importing foam-glass aggregate from Germany to test the market. He plans to open his own manufacturing plant early next year.
High-rises made of wood: Cross-laminated timber, or CLT, is essentially made of wooden boards glued on top of each other and is becoming popular alternatives to steel and concrete. States like Washington, Oregon and Utah have changed their building codes so mass timber â€” including CLT â€” can be used to construct buildings up to 18-stories high. The American Wood Council said that as of March, there are more than 750 mass timber projects either in the design or construction phase.
Concrete from hemp?: Congress legalized hemp in 2018, and one of the largest untapped markets for the plant isnâ€™t CBD oil, but building materials. Mixing hempâ€™s fibers with water and limestone creates a high-insulating concrete. Cannabis industry publications predict that the way Europeâ€™s Green Deal plays out will be a bellwether for the viability of â€śhempcreteâ€ť in the American market. The bloc could outline a regulatory pathway for the construction industry, but at the moment, hemp isnâ€™t included in any mainstream building codes.
SOLAR MANDATE â€” Solar energy has been growing rapidly for years, but tension can arise over where the panels should be located.
Californiaâ€™s first-in-the-nation mandate illustrates some of the concerns that come into play. The state changed its building codes to require that new homes and low-rise apartment buildings have rooftop solar panels, as part of a goal to reach 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045. But regulators already have loosened that mandate in Sacramento, allowing some new developments to draw power from off-site solar farms instead of installing panels on individual rooftops. Utilities generally prefer centralized systems to distributed rooftop panels because it makes it easier to manage the grid, and homebuilders supported changing the policy in Sacramento to keep home prices down.
But environmental groups including the Sierra Club objected to the move, arguing that the state needs as much solar energy as it can get and warning that other utilities would seek similar waivers. Pacific Gas and Electric, which serves much of the state, supported the waiver requested by Sacramentoâ€™s municipal utility but it has not sought its own exemption from the rooftop mandate. PG&E is nearing the conclusion of a lengthy bankruptcy proceeding after facing billions of dollars in claims from victims of the 2017 and 2018 wildfires caused by the utilityâ€™s equipment.
Community solar projects, like the one that will serve Sacramento, can deliver cheaper solar power thanks to economies of scale, said Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeleyâ€™s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. But rooftop solar panels can improve resilience against natural disasters, and ease the strain elsewhere in the system. â€śThe more solar panels we have on peopleâ€™s roofs, the less electricity they demand from the grid,â€ť he told The Long Game.
A 10-state push for new solar homes: Environment America today launched a new campaign aimed at introducing rooftop solar legislation similar to Californiaâ€™s in 10 other states, including Colorado, Minnesota, Texas and Pennsylvania. The group said installing solar panels on all new homes could cut an estimated 161 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2045, or the equivalent of taking more than 34 million cars off the road.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION â€” Retrofitting homes and buildings to be more energy efficient is a key piece of the European Unionâ€™s Green Deal goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050. But sustainable housing isnâ€™t just about how your home is designed â€” it also matters where itâ€™s located and how the surrounding space is used. In particular, how welcome are cars? European cities are trying to keep as many of them off the roads as possible after recent lockdowns gave residents a taste of cleaner air and uncongested streets.
Now, officials want to keep those trends in place as cities begin to reopen. Aitor HernĂˇndez-Morales looks at the city of the future as part of POLITICO Europeâ€™s The World in 2050 special report: â€śStructurally, streets, avenues and boulevards remain the same, but empty of most of the cars that fill them today. The place of cars is taken by pedestrians, cyclists and electric buses, while gardens, playgrounds and restaurant terraces occupy former parking spots,â€ť he writes.
â€” The pandemic and climate change are threatening the business model of the Panama Canal, NPRâ€™s Here and Now reports.
â€” A small city in the San Francisco Bay Area is the latest to ban natural gas in new commercial and apartment buildings, but officials stopped short of pulling the plug on hookups for single-family homes. The San Mateo Daily Journal is following the story.
â€” A decade of battles over oil and natural gas pipelines has arrived at the Supreme Court. Axios breaks down the legal arguments.