California Building Standards are Not Strong Enough

by Ginosar  

Introduction:

California is noted for its lower electricity consumption because it has a leveled per capita use of electricity while in the rest of the US the per capita electricity demand increased significantly over the last three decades.

The common belief is that the CA energy standards developed by the California Energy Commission more than three decades ago is the primary reason for the low electricity use. The CA conservation and efficiency standards are very useful and should be an example to the rest of the nation, however, they seem not the main reason for the low electricity consumption. Their impacts are also limited since they apply mostly to new construction. The vast stock of older buildings is not impacted by these important standards.

 

It seems that the low electricity use is also due to other unique conditions in California and that the building standards, as important as they are, should be tightened significantly.

 

Below is a letter on this subject I sent recently to an influential senator in the California Senate:

 

 

Dear Senator:

It is likely that California reputation as leader in electricity conservation is not so well deserved and there is a way to improve that at least in one area - building conservation.

 

According to a 2008 study by two Stanford professors* only 23% of the leveled per capita use of electricity in CA is due to our conservation and efficiency regulations. The rest is due to a large population of immigrants that live at a very low standard of living and at higher density. Some is due to the mild weather in most population centers. The sparsely populated cold and very hot regions of the state, lack of heavy industry, and the lower average size of residential units.

 

Background:

My interest in conservation in housing was intensified when I was the Manager of the Solar Office at the California Energy Commission when we determined that over 80% of the benefits of solar were due to the building insulation.

I continue to advocate conservation since each kWh reduced saves 3 kWh of input energy to the electrical generation system.

 

Some 6 years ago Larry Carr, a SMUD director (Sacramento Municipal Utility District), invited me to speak to the board about conservation vs. PV. I was instrumental then in reducing SMUD's main emphasis on solar photovoltaic. They were the biggest advocates and users of PV in the US then.

 

Earlier this year a key staff at the U.S. Senate told me that many Senators were skeptical that we could reduce the global and US energy consumption by 80% by 2050  while global population increase coupled by demand for higher standard of living would dictate considerably higher energy demand. He asked me to help him convinced some Senators that it is possible to cut our immense energy consumption.

 

I met with CEC (CA. Energy Comm.) commissioner Dr. Art Rosenfeld, known for his high dedication and contributions to energy conservation, to learn from his and CEC vast experience in this area. He gave me his PowerPoint presentation and papers he wrote and presented to leaders in India and China and I sent them to that U.S. Senate staff to help him answer the questions in the Senate.

 

These exchanges increased my interest in CA energy standards and I did a small investigation to see how it is performing by inspecting three houses under construction (in Sacramento and in the mountain regions) and talked to several builders. The results were disappointing. The builders, as expected, have been concentrating on barely meeting the insulation standards at the minimum possible effort.

 

I recently calculated the option of a small change in the wall construction that could notably increase building conservation. This is a well known construction option that works effectively with negligible increase in construction cost

 

I discussed the building standard and the suggested improvement with a seasoned building specialist and he agreed that it would be useful to incorporate in the standard. However, it could be difficult to incorporate it in the CA standard because, he believes, that the requirement is that the payback period for conservation improvements must be a short 5 years. This might have been a way decades ago to allow the State to push trough its standard against the resistance of the building industry. However, if true, it does not satisfy current State needs and global warming concerns.

 

A typical house in CA lasts more than 50 years and the standard should reflect that reality. Not only that, the improvement I suggested and other improvements we can possibly introduce, should not increase the cost much, if at all. The resistance by builders is probably due more to sticking with known construction and not willing to try even a small, well accepted, improvement.

 

In addition as global warming advance our temperatures are likely to be more extreme in the summer, requiring more air-conditioning. Therefore, our building conservation should reflect now the temperatures expected during the life of the buildings.

 

May I suggest that your office investigate if CEC standards are actually constrained by the 5 years payback rule and if so to propose a bill that would open it to a much longer period.

 

Please note that existing housing stock built before the state energy regulation is vast and waste a lot of energy. It is a subject that deserves considerable higher attention by the government.

 

* June 2008 Study by:

Anant Sudarshan

Department of Management Science and Engineering, Stanford University

James Sweeney

Director, Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency, Stanford University

 

 

 

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