Grinding Out the Ground Game of Energy Efficiency

Back in October of 2011 the Seattle City Council passed a resolution “committing” the City to become a zero-net greenhouse gas emitter by 2050.  Although individuals, cities, and governments or organizations in general seldom achieve lofty goals without first setting lofty goals, we all know that lofty goals are more easily set than met.  So I indulged in a certain amount of cynicism at the time, suggesting that the resolution was an easy thing to pass, and it would get much more difficult when it came time to actually take the steps that reduces greenhouse gas emission.  To use a football analogy, there are no Hail Mary passes available for this – it is all about the ground game, where every yard has to be earned.

Seattle is now developing its amendments to the 2012 state energy code.  The goal is to have adopted a new Seattle Energy Code that will apply to permit applications filed after September 1, 2013.  The 2012 Seattle Energy Code will affect only non-residential buildings, but nonetheless is one of those places where over time, actual energy use can be reduced and the energy that is used can become lower-carbon.

The problem, not surprisingly, is that those energy improvements come at a price.  The challenge in adopting an energy code meant to drive a significant reduction in energy use is to find the sweet spot – if you can call it that – which drives the most energy reduction consistent with not driving development to someplace cheaper or causing owners of the existing building stock to delay or abandon upgrades of their buildings because of the cost of the energy upgrades the City will require.  In this case, “someplace cheaper” could be as close as across Lake Washington, since none of the suburban cities around Seattle have taken up the challenge of achieving zero-net greenhouse gas emissions, and tend to be much more sensitive to maintaining the ability to build buildings inexpensively.  So Seattle tends to encourage growth to go to the suburban cities when it sets standards for things like energy codes that don’t make economic sense.  As to discouraging upgrading of existing buildings, cities can be a material cause of their own run-down neighborhoods, and they need to find a balance between encouraging reinvestment in existing building stock and encouraging energy improvement in that building stock.  While most of the buildings we will have in 2050 have already been built and thus improvement in building energy efficiency can and should come from the existing building stock, improved energy efficiency is not the only imperative for those existing buildings.

One of the things that complicates any sort of balancing of priorities in adoption of an energy code is that energy codes have become highly technical.  Quite literally, only a mechanical or electrical engineer has a clue what most of the code means.  Most of us have no idea whether, for instance, “default U-Factors for Skylights” are appropriate. (See Table R303.1.3(4). Scroll on down, and it gets less and less understandable.)  To actually have a conversation about the code, you need to in effect be bilingual – speaking both mechanical engineering and political language.  Very few mechanical engineers speak politics, and probably fewer elected officials speak mechanical engineering.  The upshot is that the elected officials who adopt the code are unlikely to understand much about what they are adopting – which makes it hard to know if they have made a reasoned and balanced decision.

With that caveat – and I don’t speak mechanical engineering – the big issues that are on the table appear to be:

  • Renewable energy requirements and solar-ready roofs.  The existing code requires new buildings to incorporate renewable energy production into the building.  But there is an escape alternative – a developer can instead buy renewable energy credits (RECs).  The upshot is that all the developers have bought RECs – which means that the actual energy reductions tend to occur somewhere else.  The proposed code reduces the amount of renewable energy that is required, but eliminates the REC option.  The thinking apparently is that if the code didn’t require so much renewable energy, it would be more reasonable to expect that there be some included in the building.  And since it would still be easier and cheaper to just buy RECs, if the City actually wants renewable energy in the buildings, it can’t allow that opt-out.  On the other hand, what are the renewable energy sources?  Solar panels or solar hot water heating on the roof is probably the most obvious choice.  But the draft code acknowledges that solar is not yet cost effective.  So, the draft code would require that new buildings be “solar ready” – that they maintain a solar zone, and be built with the conduits in place that would make installation of the solar equipment at a later date less expensive.  Once the City has acknowledged that solar is not yet cost-effective, it is hard to imagine how they think the renewable energy requirements will be met for new buildings today.
  • Metering and plug load controls.  The draft language for this is not available yet.  But smart grid experiments have shown that people make different choices when they have real-time feedback on their energy use.  For commercial buildings, it may be appropriate that each tenant actually has a meter for their electricity, so that a business will make informed choices about their energy use.  And, the amount of energy used by our computers and other devices, even when they are turned off, is remarkable.  So stopping the flow of current to their plugs when no one is using them may also be a real source of energy savings.  Whether this makes sense depends on the ultimate language – and it isn’t available yet.
  • What do you do about substantial improvements in an existing building?  Under what circumstances can you have floor-to-ceiling glass?  I asked for the draft language on this one, and was told that it is still in the process of review within the Department of Planning and Development.  If there is any place where politics and the mechanical engineering need to collide, this is probably it.  So I am not surprised that there is significant review going on within the Department of Planning and Development before they release the language.  (This is “part 1” on the Seattle Energy Code, because I’ll write another post when the language on all these is actually available.)
  • Commissioning the building.  One of the remarkable discoveries (well, duh) of the last few years is that a significant amount of potential energy savings from energy-efficient mechanical equipment is never realized, and people tend to not like energy-efficient buildings, because after the energy efficient systems were installed, no one learned how to use them correctly or checked to make sure they were functioning correctly.  The concept of “commissioning” is that once you have the systems installed, you need to make sure they are functioning and teach the people who will be managing the buildings how to use them.  It is a pretty common sense notion.  On the other hand, it is not cheap.  It undoubtedly pays for itself in the long-run.  But building owners faced with a need for a certificate of occupancy and closing their permanent financing are often not thinking long-term.  The current energy code requires commissioning, but apparently the intent is to strengthen that requirement.

The Seattle 2012 Energy Code will take shape over the next few weeks, and as more details become available I’ll report on ones that raise significant issues.  In the meantime – Happy New Year, and best wishes for not only 2013, but for 2050 as well!