Washington State Energy Efficiency Victory Shows Nation How to Save Money, Cut Pollution at the Same Time

Yesterday, a federal district court judge cleared the way for Washington State to move forward with a state building energy code for new homes that will save Washington homeowners money on their energy bills while reducing harmful air pollution from power plants at the same time. The judge ruled that the State of Washington has the right to proceed with a strong new energy code which boosts energy efficiency, rejecting an industry challenge that the code ran afoul of federal law. This decision paves the way for other states to move ahead with stronger building energy efficiency codes that can deliver the same benefits to their residents and help build America’s clean energy future. And the decision will discourage any future efforts by industry groups to challenge state energy codes, so that they can’t block similar savings for homeowners nationwide.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama celebrated the role of clean energy in helping the United States win the future and announced a bold vision for the federal government in moving forward with clean energy solutions. The President’s commitment to clean energy is inspiring. But the states can also play an important role in winning the clean energy future.

In 2009, following in the tradition of states like California and New York, which have been trail blazers on clean energy solutions, Washington State adopted a new energy efficiency code for residential buildings that required a 15% reduction in energy consumption for new homes. But Washington didn’t mandate any particular method for meeting this requirement. Instead, it allowed builders to comply in numerous ways. Some of these options allowed, but did not require, the use of high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment.

The approach of offering builders many options and pathways for meeting building energy efficiency goals is simple common sense. But a Washington State building trade association charged into federal district court last year, challenging the new code as preempted by the federal Energy Policy Conservation Act, the law which establishes national energy efficiency standards for residential and commercial products such as furnaces. This challenge came from an industry playbook that has been tried before: another trade association recently challenged a building energy code adopted by the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and succeeded in partially blocking that law.

NRDC was determined not to let that happen again.  We rushed into court to defend the Washington building energy code, working closely with the excellent lawyers at Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna’s office and at Earthjustice’s Washington State office, and with Washington state energy and environmental groups.  Together, we mounted a full-on defense of the new code, untangling the language, history and intent of the federal law.  We explained that federal law actually encourages states to adopt more efficient building codes and that Congress explicitly allows states to adopt energy codes that include compliance pathways with the option of using high efficiency equipment, as long as these options are not required and there are other options that don’t involve use of this equipment. Through evidence provided by nationally recognized building energy experts and Washington state builders who understand that energy efficiency increases the value of homes, we argued that the Washington code is consistent with federal law.   

Yesterday, the judge ruled in our favor.  He threw out the trade association’s challenge on all counts, finding that the Washington building energy code met the requirements of the federal law.   In legalese, the court found that the trade association had failed to show either “that the Washington Code requires use of products with higher efficiency than mandated by federal standards as the only way to comply with the Code" or that the code “‘functionally’ or ‘effectively’ requires use of products that exceed federal efficiency standards’.”  And in plain language, that’s good news for Washington state homeowners’ pockets and for all state residents who like breathing cleaner air.

Moving forward, NRDC is committed to continuing to assist and support states and municipalities who want to use their local power to adopt and implement strong energy efficiency codes. Under the 2008 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, each state that accepted federal stimulus funds has pledged to adopt a stronger building energy code. http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/lburt/is_your_governor_keeping_hishe.html     

Thanks to yesterday’s decision, every state that follows through on this commitment should know that the law is on their side if they push for buildings to be more efficient.  NRDC and our allies will stand by the states in their efforts to cut energy costs, curb pollution and build America’s clean energy future.