Buildings are more efficient, but not as much as Obama promised
Early legislation and executive branch actions have helped President Obama chip away at his goal of making buildings more energy efficient by 2030.
The cap-and-trade bill, one of Obama's central campaign promises, would have made buildings 75 percent more efficient than they were in 2009 by 2030 — 25 percent below Obama's original goal. That bill never made it to a vote in the Senate.
But efforts at improving energy efficiency in buildings did surface in more roundabout ways.
While it's up to states to set their own building code policies, the U.S. Energy Department under Obama has promoted model efficiency standards, and has actually conducted energy efficiency determinations — something the previous administration ignored, said Lowell Ungar, the senior policy with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
For example, the stimulus package formally called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 awarded $3.1 billion to states to meet or exceed existing standards.
As of April 2016, 40 states had met or exceeded those benchmarks, improving energy efficiency between 4.6 percent to 30.7 percent for commercial buildings and 11 percent to 25.3 percent.
The stimulus package also provided $3.2 billion in block grants to local governments for improving energy efficiency, including for new buildings and retrofitting old ones; $4.5 billion to make federal buildings more energy efficient; $4.7 billion for weatherizing homes; and $4.5 billion in matching funds to update the country's energy grid.
The Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates that these programs — which total $20 billion — will save over 400 million MMBtu (million British thermal units) of energy from 2009 to 2050.
Beyond the stimulus, the administration has provided funding to states that want to make their buildings greener.
In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama announced the Better Buildings Initiative, which aims to make buildings 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020 through tax deductions for building upgrades, financial support, public-private partnerships and programming.
According to the Energy Department, all of these programs combined will help reach the goal of reducing energy use in buildings by 50 percent by 2030. That's about half as ambitious as Obama's 2008 promise.
Experts also stressed that the Obama White House has given both policy and symbolic attention to energy efficiency, despite an uncooperative Congress.
"It's clear energy efficiency is a personal interest of his, and he has pursued directly," said Ungar, noting Obama's 2009 comments about insulation being "sexy."
Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of environmental and energy economics at Yale University, pointed out that the Department of Energy's appliance rules, which affect buildings, and research on low-carbon buildings should also count as progress.
"As for making all buildings carbon neutral, 2030 is quite a ways off," Gillingham said, "The bottom line is that quite a bit of work remains to be done to reach carbon neutrality for buildings."
We rate this a Compromise.
Congress.gov, "H.R.1 - American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009," Jan. 2, 2009
Washington Post, Stimulus Package has Green for Clean Energy, March 9, 2009
McKinsey, The US stimulus program: Investing in energy efficiency, July 2009
Department of Energy, Determinations for ASHRAE and IECC, 2004 to 2013
Department of Energy, Status of State Energy Code Adoption, April 1, 2016
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, "NATIONAL EVALUATION OF THE ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND CONSERVATION BLOCK GRANT PROGRAM," June 2015
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, "NATIONAL EVALUATION OF THE STATE ENERGY PROGRAM: AN EVALUATION OF SELECT ACTIVITIES CONDUCTED UNDER THE STATE ENERGY PROGRAM," April 2015
White House, "A Retrospective Assessment of Clean Energy Investments," February 2016
The Hill, "How the DOE's Better Buildings Challenge is pushing deep decarbonization," Nov. 10, 2014
Interview with Lowell Ungar
Email interview with Kenneth Gillingham
Climate change bill includes new building codes
Buried in a bill to cap carbon dioxide emissions are new standards meant to make homes and commercial buildings more energy efficient.
Residential and commercial buildings use 40 percent of the nation's energy and represent 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. Buildings with leaky windows and out-of-date appliances use even more energy.
Curbing climate change by improving construction standards was something President Barack Obama talked about on the campaign trail; once in office, Obama said he would "establish a goal of making all new buildings carbon neutral, or produce zero emissions, by 2030," and that, in the meantime, he would establish "a national goal of improving new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade to help us meet the 2030 goal."
Looking at the fine print of the cap-and-trade bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, it seems the administration is on its way to fulfilling this campaign promise. According to a summary of the bill, new buildings will be 30 percent more efficient in 2012 and 50 percent more efficient in 2016. Those standards will increase five percent every three years. That means that by 2030, new buildings will be 75 percent more efficient than they are today — 25 percent below the efficiency standard Obama originally promised.
A sticking point: States will now be required to follow a national building code. Every three years, two organizations — the International Energy Conservation Code and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers — write new codes; states adopt them or they simply write their own. As a result, some states have very old standards — or none at all. The bill gives money to states to comply with the new rules, and if they don't, the Department of Energy can enforce them.
Existing homes are not subject to these new rules, though there are perks in the bill for homeowners who want to seal windows, upgrade appliances or do a major retrofit. The formula here is simple: the more energy an improvement saves, the more money a consumer can get from the government. Whether all these efforts add up to old homes that are 25 more energy efficient is unclear.
The cap-and-trade bill includes rules that will improve new building energy use by 75 percent in 2030, which is 25 less than Obama had originally promised. It also includes new programs to encourage upgrades to existing homes and commercial buildings, but it is unclear whether those perks will improve efficiency by 25 percent. The bill is still slated for debate in the Senate, where any number of changes could be made. Until the bill is enacted, we rate this one In the Works.
President Barack Obama, campaign promise on energy efficiency , accessed June 30, 3009
House Energy and Commerce Committee, summary of climate change bill , accessed June 30, 2009
Green Building Law Blog, Green Building Guide to Waxman-Markey , accessed June 30, 3009
Washington Post, Buried Code , June 7, 2009
Building Code Assisstance Project, map of states without commercial building codes , accessed June 30, 2009
Building Code Assistance Project, map of states without residential building codes , accessed June 30, 2009
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Obama Administration Launches New Energy Efficiency Efforts
, accessed June 30, 2009
Natural Resources Defense Council, Efficiency in Waxman-Markey: Part 1 - Buildings , by Lane Burt, April 7, 2009