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It's fun for me to dream about stuff—building products and materials—and how we can make that stuff greener. I recently wrote about 7 wish-list items for greener building products and materials. Today I want to talk policy—six changes we need in the public sphere to bring more sustainability to our built environment and beyond.
1) Strengthen building codes by recognizing resilience
I believe that the need for buildings and communities that can withstand heat waves, more intense storms, flooding, drought, and other effects of a changing climate—as well as problems wrought directly by our fellow humans (like terrorism)—point to the need for strengthening building codes and land-use regulations.
Resilience can be the motivation for codes and standards that will ensure more sustainable, energy-efficient, comfortable, and livable buildings and communities. New York City, in implementing 16 of the 33 recommendations coming out of the Building Resiliency Task Force in 2013, has demonstrated the potential for moving forward quickly with change. 2014 can be the year for other municipalities to make similar progress.
2) Account for societal impacts in pricing energy then rely on the free market
When we fuel up our cars, turn up our thermostat at home, or leave our lights on, that energy consumption affects everybody: air pollution that causes health problems, water pollution from fossil fuel extraction, hazardous disposal of byproducts such as coal fly ash and radioactive waste, military costs of protecting our access to that energy, and global warming impacts of carbon dioxide emissions. These societal costs of energy consumption should be quantified and factored into the price we pay for those fuels.
Whether through carbon taxes, a new cap-and-trade approach with air and water pollution, new waste-disposal fees, or some other mechanism, by making consumers and businesses pay more for the consumption of energy sources that result in significant societal impacts, a huge incentive could be provided for energy conservation and renewable energy production. Such taxes or fees could even be levied in a revenue-neutral way through “tax shifting”—offsetting, for example, payroll taxes.
If we had the wisdom and courage to do this, we could then let market forces do their magic in fueling innovation and product development and energy performance. It’s a long shot, I know (I’m not holding my breath), but I’m wishing for recognition of this market-based approach to energy pricing in 2014.
3) Build political momentum for transportation alternatives
The automobile rules in America—at the expense of investment in public transit and infrastructure enhancements that would benefit walkers and bicyclists. Changing this paradigm would create better places to live—where you could safely walk to a corner café or enjoy a comfortable bus or rail commute to work. Yet, in Washington, these alternatives to the automobile are considered fringe special interests.
My wish for the New Year is a change in attitude about these alternatives to the automobile. Some of our major cities, from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon, are making tremendous progress along these lines, but change needs to come to the rest of the country, where pedestrian safety is just as important as in Portland. In our small town of Brattleboro, we’ve just experienced the fourth pedestrian fatality in two years!) I believe that once more people see and experience the benefits of non-automobile transportation, momentum will build for even more rapid change—but we have a long way to go.
4) Institute financing mechanisms for energy improvements and renewable energy
Innovative financing mechanisms to make private investments in energy efficiency and renewables more affordable are needed if we are to achieve rapid progress in improving the energy performance of existing homes and businesses. PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing is an option that is being tried in some places, but there has been significant pushback, due to concerns about who’s first in line for recovery of debt in the event of a default. I think PACE can work effectively (Vermont, in fact, has instituted regulations that address most of the concerns of mortgage lenders), but we shouldn’t stop there.
In 2014 I’d like to see the creative minds of the banking industry, investment community, electric and gas utilities, and even the insurance industry come up with new financing mechanisms for energy improvements. Government probably has a role in this, whether through loan guarantees, accelerated depreciation regulations, or other mechanisms.
5) Extend producer tax credits and other incentives for renewables
Assuming that we don’t make progress in imposing taxes on the societal impacts of conventional energy consumption so that we can put market forces to work (my first choice—see above), I’d like to see extension of some (but not all) of the subsidies and incentives that support renewables. At the commercial power production level, developers of wind and solar farms benefit from producer tax credits. These are good and should be extended, while most incentives for corn-based ethanol don’t make sense.
Homeowners benefit from tax credits for solar energy systems and a few other energy technologies. Most of these should also be extended, though perhaps at gradually dropping levels as the prices for these systems (and thus the need for subsidy) diminish.
I do think, however, that there should be a cap on the solar tax credits (we don’t need to be subsidizing Aspen billionaires putting in massive solar arrays to melt snow on their driveways). And some of the other tax credits should be reevaluated—such as support for ground-source (geothermal) heat pumps that cost a whole lot more than their air-source heat pump cousins and residential-scale wind turbines that usually aren’t cost-effective.
Most renewable energy credits are due to expire in the next few years. We should take action now to extend these to keep the renewable energy industry strong and maintain the pace of progress. It isn’t fair to the industry to wait until the last minute in passing extensions to such programs, as has been common practice in the past.
6) Make frugal cool
Finally, I’d love to see frugality celebrated in the U.S. instead of only celebrating excess—as seems to be the case in the popular media and advertising world today. When my neighbor insulates her house or buys a plug-in hybrid car I benefit from the reduced energy consumption and pollution. We should build a culture of recognizing and expressing gratitude for conserving energy.
Happy New Year.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.
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