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To Save Energy, Groups Call for a New Texas Building Code

In energy-guzzling Texas, a group of environmental advocates and business leaders is calling a for new statewide energy building code.

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A group of environmental advocates and business leaders is calling on Texas officials to adopt a new statewide energy building code, saying the move would slash air pollution and lower utility bills across the energy-guzzling state where the electric grid often strains to keep up.

In a letter sent Thursday to Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, the group, led by the Sierra Club, said Texas should adopt stricter energy standards for construction of new homes and commercial buildings. “Texas is at an energy crossroads and every kilowatt generated or saved is needed,” the letter said.

Less than two years after Texas last changed its building codes to comport with an international model, best practices for energy-efficient construction have evolved. Advocates for even stricter codes say adopting the latest model would save homeowners money and help Texas meet its ever-increasing demands for power. But some industry officials and the Texas comptroller's office worry that too much change too rapidly will result in confusion and damage the industry.

The environmental group and business leaders want new standards that mirror the 2012 models developed by the International Code Council, a nonprofit group that gathers input from experts and public officials across the country. Bill Fay, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, said the models are a “gold standard” for energy efficiency.

Texas policymakers are struggling to answer questions about how they will keep energy flowing in the increasingly hot, dry state with its rapidly growing population and economy. In May 2012, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, operator of the grid that covers 75 percent of the state, reported that Texans face the possibility of rolling blackouts in the next decade, as the gap between its energy supply and demand narrows.

A new building code would significantly curb the state’s energy demand, easing strain on the grid, backers say. Buildings account for almost 40 percent of the state’s total energy use and 70 percent of its electricity consumption, according to the State Energy Conservation Office. 

“This isn’t rocket science,” Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, said in a statement. “It’s better windows, better insulation, better duct systems and tighter, more comfortable buildings.”

Texas last adopted new construction standards for new single-family homes in January of 2012. It was part of a wave of states that were seeking energy-related federal stimulus dollars at the time. The state also tightened standards for commercial, industrial and other residences in April 2011. The state based the new requirements on the International Code Council’s 2009 models.

Though the federal incentives have dried up, advocates say it’s time for another update, describing the 2012 international code as a big improvement over the 2009 model. 

An electric or gas-powered house in Potter or Tarrant County, for instance, could reduce its total energy use by as much as 25 percent under the 2012 model, according to the Energy Systems Laboratory at the Texas A&M University System. The Legislature instructed the lab to evaluate each new international energy code and recommend whether Texas should adopt it. Savings for a house that uses a more efficient heat pump — which pulls heat out of the air or ground  would reduce close to 20 percent of energy use in both counties.

In August 2012, the lab formally recommended adopting the latest international code.  

Under that overhaul, the average Texas homeowner would save nearly $3,500 over a 30-year life cycle, according to a U.S. Department of Energy analysis. Energy savings would eclipse the initial costs of implementing the code in about six years.

The new code would make Texas a national leader in energy-efficient construction. For commercial buildings, just eight states have adopted codes at or above either the 2010 or 2012 international code, according to a DOE map. Six states have done so on the residential side.

Even without state action, some Texas cities are moving in that direction. More than 20 cities — including Austin, College Station and Denison — have adopted the latest international standards. Five more cities, including Houston, Abilene and Plano, are expected to finalize the rules this year.

In an email, the comptroller’s office said it would “review the letter from the Sierra Club and send them a response on the important issue of efficient energy use in buildings.” But the office, which says it has held more than 150 training workshops for engineers, architects, builders and others on how to meet the latest requirements, appears hesitant to overhaul the code again so soon.

“Rapidly changing standards can create difficulties for builders and unanticipated cost increases for consumers,” wrote R.J. DeSilva, the comptroller’s spokesman.  

Ned Muñoz, a vice president at the Texas Association of Builders, echoed some of those concerns. He said his group supported Texas’ most recent overhaul, and the current code — coupled with the public’s general call for more efficiency — is strong enough for now.

“If you have constant turnover, no one’s really going to be able to understand it,” he said. “We do see the market working.”

Next month, the International Code Council is expected to release drafts of its 2015 updates. Muñoz said Texas should wait to review those changes, rather than adopting the 2012 version. The comptroller’s office signaled it might wait for the 2015 update, saying the draft will provide a look at the latest standards as the state monitors developments in building energy codes.

Muñoz also worried that increasing the up-front costs of new homes would make them unaffordable. He pointed to a 2006 analysis by James Gaines, an economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M. Gaines found that, on average, every $1,000 increase in the price of a $50,000-$100,000 home would price out another 38,500-plus Texas households.

Fay, of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, said his allies don’t see eye to eye with builders on code issues because they have different definitions of homeownership.

“[Builders] want you to look at homeownership as a snap shot — it’s the moment you buy it. We look at it more like a motion picture, in which you hold onto it and pay for it for years,” he said. “Builders aren’t the ones who have to pay your energy bill.” 

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