A building efficiency program that puts low-income people first

Because of its progressive politics, huge population and economy that flexes its muscle well beyond its borders, California often serves as an indicator of where the country is headed.

That’s especially true in energy where the state long has led with the deployment and use of renewable energy, battery energy storage, electric vehicles, zero water use power plants and so on. It’s also led in rejecting coal-fired electricity generated as far away as Wyoming as well as the future use of natural gas for power generation and in buildings.

It’s in the building sector that California is again taking the lead.

Nationally, buildings consume about 75 percent of electricity in the current grid, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. A 2018 report prepared for the Natural Resources Defense Council found that California’s buildings are responsible for one-quarter of the state’s climate emissions: more than half of those emissions come from burning gas or propane in furnaces and water heaters. Almost 9 out of 10 California homes use gas for heat or hot water or both. That means that heating and hot water comprise the lion’s share of emissions from energy use in buildings.

In 2018 California lawmakers passed a bill known as Senate Bill 1477 that requires the state’s utility regulators to develop two programs to test a pair of approaches to building decarbonization. The programs are the Building Initiative for Low Emissions Development (or BUILD) and the Technology and Equipment for Clean Heating (or TECH).

This past February, regulators started to cobble together rules and procedures for the programs. And earlier this month they held the first of a series of workshops to begin presenting program outlines to the public.

The legislation offers stretch goals that challenge both the public and the private sectors to think creatively and look for innovative solutions.

To that end, the BUILD program is intended to incentivize the deployment in new residential buildings of near-zero technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And the TECH initiative aims to advance California’s market for low-emissions
space and water heating equipment that is in an early stage of market
development in both new and existing residential buildings.

Funding for the BUILD Program will come from a pool of $200 million, collected in four $50 million annual installments, from the state’s carbon cap-and-trade program. Lawmakers and required that no less than 30 percent of the funding be set aside for new low-income, residential housing. It goes on to require that those low-income housing projects must receive higher incentives than other types of housing, be offered technical assistance, and not result in higher utility bills for occupants.

Some of the eligible technologies include heat pump HVAC; solar water heaters with electric backup; on-site solar photovoltaic generation and energy storage; and roof, attic and wall insulation along with windows.

Simple stuff, sure, but energy saving technologies like these are too often passed over. The roof on my home in Colorado is ideal for solar PV, but my wife and I have so far passed up installing panels because of the cost and long payback. A few years back, however, we insulated the attic and installed new windows and doors. And we are pretty aggressive at not using energy in the first place.

Low-income residents, however, have fewer choices. Sure, they can switch off a light switch. But most landlords feel little need to make energy-saving investments unless a direct incentive from the government is available.

For that reason alone, California’s SB 1477 is a step in the right direction. Its starting point is low-income residents and aims to achieve both energy and emission reduction targets without a financial penalty on those who are least able to afford another burden.

As I have mentioned earlier, housing is one systemic inequality that we as a nation need to address. Future blogs will look more closely at social vulnerability as it applies to housing. And I will offer a few thoughts based on my own story.

What do you think? Join the conversation! theinfrareport@gmail.com

I took this photo of a house under construction in the Denver suburbs.

Author: David Wagman

I live in Colorado where I write about a wide range of topics, and get outside regularly to hike, bike, garden and walk the dog!