New Report Highlights Existing Authorities for Better Buildings, Updates on Progress to Date

What can America do to promote energy efficiency and sustainability in residential, multifamily and commercial buildings if Congress remains gridlocked in an election year? A new analysis shows that the Obama administration has significant ability to advance these goals using its existing authority and current authorizations. A new report released today by the US Green Building Council and 15 partner organizations, including NRDC, reflects on progress made since 2010 and highlights new opportunities for the administration to improve the efficiency and sustainability of the nation’s building stock.

The report is an update from an April 2010 report which identified  nearly 100 policy opportunities for the administration to increase green buildings across almost every agency including DOE, HUD, FHA, DOD, USDA, and GSA, to name a few. Today’s report reflects on the progress (or in some cases lack thereof) on the policies identified in the 2010 report and provides an additional 32 new policy options.

This report is an excellent resource on how the administration can utilize existing authority and appropriations to improve the sustainability of our nation’s building stock. In many cases, it is a matter of incorporating energy efficiency and sustainability requirements for projects where money is already being spent, such as federally assisted housing. In others, the opportunities are in voluntary programs or regulatory changes that can help enable markets for energy efficiency, such as voluntary energy efficiency labeling or the incorporation of energy and transportation costs into mortgage underwriting. Across the board, the improvements in building energy efficiency that could be made under the authority outlined in today's report are a huge opportunity to reduce the nation’s energy bills, while reducing pollution and creating jobs.

While it’s worth reading the full report, there are a few key points of progress and recommendations worth highlighting:

  • Issue Guidance on Claiming Section 179D: In early 2011, President Obama announced a plan to improve the administration of the efficient commercial buildings tax deduction (Section 179D) as part of his Better Buildings Initiative which included both administrative fixes and a legislative proposal. Current regulations, issued by a reluctant DOE in the previous Administration, have been criticized by businesses as too bureaucratic, complex, and costly. Despite this announcement, guidance has yet to be issued on how to claim the partial deduction or model the baseline building (such as by using COMNET compliant software). DOE and IRS should move quickly to issue guidance to make 179D more useable.
  • Incorporate energy and transportation costs into underwriting criteria: Mortgage underwriters should be required to accurately account for the whole cost of home ownership which varies depending on the energy and location efficiency of the home. Accurately accounting for these costs would help enable markets for more efficient homes. More importantly to those whose priorities are construction markets and jobs, this would allow home building to recover.
  • Keep up on Appliance and Equipment Efficiency Standards: DOE caught up with its legal deadlines to issue energy efficiency standards for various appliances and equipment in 2011 – and then quickly fell back behind schedule. Among the final standards set in 2011 are standards for room air conditioners, dryers, refrigerators, furnaces, central air conditioners and heat pump – all of which were supported jointly by manufacturers, consumer groups, and environmental and efficiency advocates – that will save consumers a net of almost $60 billion over the next three decades. DOE needs to get back on track and issue timely and strong energy efficiency standards – rules expected within the next year have the potential to save consumers a net of at least $45 billion through 2030 (NB: this is a preliminary estimate based on a 2009 analysis which does not include all products for which standards are expected within the next year, so actual savings will likely be even larger).
  • Leverage Purchasing Power of Federal Government – As a large purchaser of goods, the Federal government has the ability to create markets for energy efficient or sustainable products for lower prices, both by using its own purchasing power and its ability to connect potential buyers and vendors.  Examples of this include the programs DOE has set up for high performance windows and high performance rooftop air conditioners  which both connect buyers and vendors for products that meet the energy efficiency specs set by DOE. DOE should start programs like these for other products. Additionally, both DOE and DOD should leverage the power of their own purchasing to procure more energy efficient products. This recommendation not only improves energy efficiency, but also cuts the federal deficit.
  • Finalize energy efficiency and sustainability requirements for federal buildings: Proposed rules have been issued with requirements for the sustainability, energy efficiency, and fossil fuel use reduction of Federal buildings. These rules should be finalized expeditiously and strengthened where necessary.