Our humble abodes the key to national energy crisis

It is probably not a surprise to most that, although the U.S. constitutes only 4 percent of the world's population, it accounts for 22 percent of the world's total energy consumption. Usually when we hear statistics like this we assume the big culprits are industry and big business, or modes of transportation. But in fact, the operation of residential housing is responsible for 21 percent of total US energy consumption, things like space heating and cooling, appliances, water heating, and lighting.

It is probably not a surprise to most that, although the U.S. constitutes only 4 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for 22 percent of the world’s total energy consumption.

Usually when we hear statistics like this we assume the big culprits are industry and big business, or modes of transportation. But in fact, the operation of residential housing is responsible for 21 percent of total US energy consumption, things like space heating and cooling, appliances, water heating, and lighting. That 21 percent compares to just 2 percent of consumption by industrial facilities and 18 percent from commercial buildings. Home energy consumption annually accounts for twice as much as is consumed by cars.

At last Thursday night’s first Sustainable Issaquah Home Energy Efficiency Group (HEEG) speaker event in Issaquah, accredited home energy auditor Gary Wood explained how the efficiency gains made in home construction in the 1970s had petered away in the 80s and 90s. Homes built after 2000 – bigger, with more appliances, and no more efficient per square foot – come with higher energy bills than homes built at any other time in history.

“Our newer homes are not enabling people to live more efficiently,” Wood said.

Wood said the peak oil crisis in the 1970s was the catalyst for Americans to think more about reducing energy consumption in their homes. But, like we saw in people’s transportation choices when gas prices rose to nearly $4 in 2008 and 2009, once the immediate pressure subsided, people reverted to traditional methods.

But many hope a number of new state and federal government, and private industry, programs will provide incentives for homeowners and builders to adopt more modern practices. A new Washington energy code will require home builders to improve the construction of new homes.

In 2009, Governor Christine Gregoire directed the Washington State Building Code Council to improve the State Energy Code to reduce energy use by 30 percent from 2006 levels. The new code makes it a requirement that new home builders perform duct sealing and air leak tests and other energy audits, and meet a certain standard of efficiency by better insulating, walls, windows and doors.

While the governor stated in the past she was eager to begin implementing the new code for the financial, as well as the environmental, benefits, not everyone was happy with the proposed standards.

The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) filed a lawsuit challenging the new codes, which it said goes beyond the state’s constitutional boundaries by requiring builders to install energy efficient heating, ventilation, air conditioning and plumbing equipment that meet a higher standard than those set by the federal government.

Energy efficiency advocates have criticized BIAW for holding up what they say will provide a much needed economic boost for the state and relief for homeowners struggling to deal with rising energy bills. While builders claim the new code would stifle economic recovery, energy auditors and contractors specializing in energy efficient construction say the opposite.

“This suit is a cynical attempt to delay a common-sense standard that will save homeowners money on their energy bills, make their homes more comfortable, and help the region avoid expensive new power plants,” wrote the manager of the Northwest Energy Coalition’s (NWEC) Efficiency Works project, Kim Drury. “This suit says builders don’t care about long-term affordability of homeownership or a clean energy future.”

Drury said an economic analysis of the code conducted by the Department of Commerce showed the new standards would add $1 per square foot to the cost of most new homes, and that the resultant energy savings would recoup that expense before the end of the third year of occupation.

The lawsuit has further delayed the already postponed legislation, which is now planned for adoption in April, 2011.

However, as much as new construction requirements are good news, energy efficiency experts believe they are only a small piece of a very big puzzle.

About 75 percent of all homes that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built, which means the retrofitting of existing homes is where the lion share of national energy savings can be made. More than 60 percent of all occupied homes in the U.S. were built in 1950 or earlier.

“Even if every home we built between now and then was a zero energy home, like the one in the Issaquah Highlands, we would only be addressing 25 percent of the problem,” Wood said.

Which is why the Obama administration has identified retrofits of existing homes as being not only a way to stimulate activity in that industry but to also address an escalating national energy bill. Federal stimulus money has enabled local energy providers like Puget Sound Energy (PSE), City Light, and Avista to provide rebates to residential, and commercial, customers who make energy efficiency improvements to their homes. These incentives range from paying for a portion of insulation per square foot, to cash for converting from electric to natural gas heating.

Wood said that, although the introduction of rebate programs was a step in the right direction, there were a number of common misconceptions that were hindering the ability of homeowners to make big efficiency improvements. Foremost among them was the idea that double-glazing windows would make a huge difference.

Leakage from windows accounts for only 9 percent of energy wastage in the average American home, and, while thicker windows or double glazing would reduce this number by a percent or two, Wood said the cost of doing so outweighed the benefits.

“Window salesman have done a great disservice to the home performance industry,” he said. “One of the most expensive things you can do to upgrade your house is to spend $20,000 on your windows.”

Instead, the majority of leakage of heated air went though the roof and walls, and so often simple insulation, and tightening of air ducts and crawl spaces, would achieve more marked reductions in heating bills. It is the job of accredited energy efficiency auditors to examine houses and advise homeowners on what improvements fit their budget.

The news is not all good, however – PSE recently announced it would scale back its efficiency rebate program.

On the horizon, all eyes are on the passage of a piece of legislation known as Home Star through the US Senate. This $6 billion rebate program would encourage investment in energy-efficient appliances, building systems and insulation, and home energy efficiency retrofits.

President of Home Performance Washington, David Bangs, said last Thursday Home Star was a critical piece of legislation that would be a huge boost for a home performance industry that just two years ago didn’t exist in this state, adding jobs as well as saving energy.

“Unemployment in the construction industry is at 25 percent,” he said. “And we have to fix the climate crisis too.”

Good news for Issaquah residents – at the next HEEG event on Sept. 16, a movie night hosted by the City of Issaquah’s Resource Conservation Office, the city will announce a competition where two homes in Issaquah will receive a completely free home energy improvement makeover.

According to the city’s Resource Conservation Office (RCO), Senior Program Manager Mary Joe de Beck, the idea is to retrofit one home built before 1950 and one built after 1950, and compare the impact of simple weatherization improvements with the zero energy zHome.

To apply to have your home retrofitted at no cost, attend the HEEG meeting on Sept. 16. Details for the event will be announced in coming weeks.