The economic stimulus plan approved by the U.S. House this week would invest billions of dollars in renovating government buildings for greater energy efficiency, but the plan is missing a key element to ensure that our tax money has the greatest positive impact: high standards. Building experts say a simple one-sentence fix could significantly boost the impact of more than $15 billion in spending already in the bill.
The next wave of federal energy efficiency standards doesn't kick in until 2010. Starting that year, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will require new federal construction and renovation projects to lower the buildings' fossil fuel use to 55% below 2003 regional averages – a strong target that meets Architecture 2030's 2030 Challenge.
The problem is the gap – unless standards are written into the economic stimulus package, most projects approved in 2009 won't be required to come close to that level of energy efficiency.
Architecture 2030 Director Edward Mazria, along with Greg Franta of the Rocky Mountain Institute's Built Environment Team and Michael Livermore, executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, are urging Congress to bridge the gap now so low-efficiency projects don't slip in under the wire.
"The Senate has a very important opportunity to improve the stimulus bill," Livermore said. It must "make sure this stimulus is a long-term dividend for the economy that keeps paying us back and isn't just a flash in the pan."
Mazria is working with several senators, including Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to add a provision to the stimulus bill that would ensure any money invested in renovating or building in either the public or private sector meets or exceeds the 2010 standards.
The 11 months between now and 2010 might seem like a small window, but the stimulus plan puts a priority on projects that can start within three months of approval. The president wants the stimulus money invested quickly to jolt the economy back to life. He's talking about $6 billion for energy efficiency renovations to federal buildings, another $6 billion to modernize schools, and $3.5 billion in block grants for energy efficiency projects. Without high energy efficiency standards, much of that taxpayer money could be wasted on minimal upgrades that don't go nearly as far as they should.
Architecture 2030 suggests that the stimulus bill prioritize new projects for funding based on their ability to meet specific energy efficiency targets. Here's the phrasing the group suggested, which did not show up in the House version of the bill but could still make it into the Senate's version:
Preference shall be given to projects that achieve overall energy savings compared to the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey 2003 (CBECS or other comparable codes, standards or measurement protocols authorized by the Secretary of Energy) of, in the following order of priority—(1) carbon neutral, (2) 85 percent, (3) 70 percent, (4) 55 percent.
Mazria, Franta and Livermore also called on Congress to tap the TARP funds, initially requested last summer by former President Bush, and make a greater investment now in energy efficiency, specifically in the private building sector, which makes up about 93 percent of all construction.
Mazria's Two-Year, Nine-Million-Jobs Investment Plan recommends investing $196 billion over two years in a plan that could create an estimated 9 million new jobs. The money would be used for a mortgage buy-down program under which the government would buy down the mortgages of homeowners who invest in energy efficiency renovations. It would be a strong incentive that could help revive a flagging construction industry and at the same time build up the local and federal tax base.
"The stimulus bill is intended to give a jolt to the economy, but in order to turn the economy around, we're really going to have to address the private building sector, because that's what's dragging the economy down," Mazria said.
He estimates that a $196 billion government investment could quickly generate well over $1 trillion in direct, private spending and begin putting people in the construction industry and all the businesses it relies on, from insulation to equipment manufacturing, back to work. He has been discussing the plan with Obama's advisers.
True energy efficiency might cost more up front, but it pays off in continuing dividends through energy savings. The technology exists, it's "shovel ready" as governors vying for a slice of the stimulus pie like to say, it just needs that incentive to be implemented on a wide scale.