Energy building standards could save $155 billion

Everyone knows that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. But the US Department of Energy (DOE) has even more advice for them -- people who live in glass houses should seriously consider triple glazing, lots of insulation, and probably a solar water heater.

It's all part of DOE's new Building Energy Performance Standards -- BEPS for short. DOE says BEPS could save $155 billion in 1980 dollars by the year 2000, while raising initial construction costs only slightly.

BEPS establishes overall energy consumption "budgets" -- so many Btus per square foot per year -- for different kinds of buildings in different climates. Builders can meet the standards any way they want.

So, with some combination of energy savers such as solar collectors, extra insulation, of heavy glazing, someone really set on a glass house will be able to go ahead and build one.

But meanwhile, DOE is being subjected to a verbal stoning from environmentalists, electric utilities, and home builders on account of BEPS.

Although a Sierra Club spokesman calls the program "better than anything else DOE is doing," some critics say it's an "exercise in overkill." The electric utilities feel BEPS is biased against electric heat. The National Association of Home Builders calls DOE's statistical methods "wacky."

Many question whether BEPS will do anything to encourage energy conservation that the marketplace isn't doing already. Congress already has written some "escape hatches" into the BEPS statute, should giving BEPS real teeth prove politically impossible.

DOE now is considering public comment on the regulations. According to law, they are to be issued in their final form by Aug. 14 and presented by the President to Congress with his recommendation whether to impose sanctions for enforcement. Even if he does recommend sanctions, it will take action from both houses within 90 days to impose them. And officials say privately that there is "no way" the Aug. 14 deadline can be met; some say BEPS won't be ready until after the election.

If sanctions are imposed, no federally insured institution, such as an FDIC member bank, could lend construction money for any building not meeting BEPS. (Federally insured institutions finance 97 percent of all housing starts. And BEPS covers all new buildings.)

If the "stick" isn't politically palatable, there is a "carrot," the Energy Management Partnership Act (EMPA). Under this bill, states adopting BEPS would get federal money for a variety of energy programs, including help for local officials administering BEPS. The National Governors' Association, not surprisingly, favors this approach.

"Fuel neutrality" is a big issue in the BEPS program. Despite the announced congressional goal of lessening US dependence on foreign oil, BEPS is intended to favor neither electric nor fossil-fuel heat, according to BEPS program manager James Binkley.

Electric resistance heat is generally seen as much less efficient than gas or oil heat. But electric utilities are quick to point out that their power comes largely from domestic sources.

Because the energy loss incurred in generating electricity occurs at the power plant rather than the house being heated electric resistance heat measured in the house appears 100 percent efficient. To compensate for that artificial efficiency, energy budgets have been "weighted" so that generally, lower energy consumption levels are allowed for electric heat than for oil or gas.

Charles Robart, technical services director of the Edison Electric Institute, says the weightings constitute a "tremendous bias" against electricity.

But electric heat pumps come out quite well under the DOE's standards, according to David Strom of the Conservation Foundation in New York. It is only electric resistance (baseboard) heating that looks so bad, and rightly so because of its inefficiency, he says.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) echoes the electric uitlities' protest: surveying 12 cities, they found that in only two -- Miami and Los Angeles -- was electric resistance heat practical under BEPS; to use it elsewhere would have required some solar installations.

This, however, is one of the things the Sierra Club particularly likes about the standards. Environmentalists and consumer groups like BEPS, but wish it were tougher.

BEPS is expected to mean a 3 percent rise in the price of a new house, and a 3 to 5 percent price increase for a commercial building.

But NAHB is less concerned with increased cost from BEPS, according to spokeswoman Michele McNamara, than with "the degree of complication that they are bringing to energy conservation."

NAHB is worred that BEPS will require builders to run each their plans through a DOE computer program, costing about $600, to test for compliance.

The Department of Energy expects houses meeting BEPS to consume 22 to 51 percent less energy than current practice, and commercial buildings, 17 to 52 percent less.

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