The Case for Doing No Harm in Energy Efficiency Upgrades

Danger from some materials widely used for efficiency upgrades is real, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Two new publications explain what can be done to make energy upgrades healthier for affordable housing residents, workers, and neighbors.
Insulation is an important part of energy efficiency in affordable housing.
Credit: iStock

Reducing, managing, and changing the way Americans use energy is an essential strategy to fighting climate change and can also provide critical health and wellbeing benefits, especially in affordable multifamily homes. Unfortunately, some materials widely used for efficiency upgrades can harm human health.

The danger is real, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

NRDC today is publishing: Policy Matters: Making Energy Upgrades Healthier for Residents, Workers, and Neighbors, and an associate policy fact sheet. These publications provide feasible and direct pathways to ensure energy efficiency programs and policies meaningfully benefit the health of residents and keep harmful upgrade materials outside of homes.

Energy efficiency has the potential to provide significant savings for thousands of working-class families on tight budgets for whom utility bills are the second-biggest expenditure after rent. When energy efficiency upgrades are prioritized in the affordable multifamily housing sector, we ensure that the most vulnerable residents see benefits sooner. Energy efficiency’s climate and cost savings benefits are clear.

What is far less understood are the adverse health effects created by chemical emissions from some of the materials commonly used for these upgrades. Widely used products such as spray foam, modified polymer, or polyurethane insulation and sealants commonly contain isocyanates, flame retardants, phthalates that have been linked to asthma, developmental delays and reproductive health problems. Luckily, safer products are readily available; we just have to choose to use them.

It Often Comes Down to Policy

Understanding the relationship between health, environment, energy and affordability is growing increasingly important. Policymakers must understand how to craft energy efficiency policy that not only provides benefits but also creates no harm.

Many partners of the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) coalition that includes NRDC have been heavily engaged in contributing to the discussion around energy, health, climate, and affordability. Their work builds on our ground-breaking report—Making Affordable Multifamily Housing More Energy Efficient: A Guide to Healthier Upgrade Materials—a comprehensive guide to readily available, healthier insulation and sealing materials. The report was developed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Elevate Energy in collaboration with The Healthy Building Network (HBN), VEIC, Three3, and the International Living Future Institute.

Decision-making about energy upgrades, particularly in the affordable multifamily housing sector, is complex and occurs in various areas, from local market availability of products, and local building codes to builder preference and federal affordable housing tax credits. Although market forces play a critical role in driving decisions about building upgrade materials, there is clearly a place for public policy in moving toward healthier materials selection.  

Pulling the Levers for Better Outcomes

The new publications point to potentially powerful policy levers in the regulatory processes that shape the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the Weatherization Assistance Program, and in state and local decision-making about building energy codes, climate change, utility programs, public health, professional certifications for energy efficient buildings, and public buildings. Some of the key avenues identified for policy change include:

  • Utility commission energy proceedings focused on requirements for building materials and cost-effectiveness testing;
  • Legislative committee hearings with oversight over public health, housing and community development, and energy policy;
  • Development of state building and energy codes, either when newly introduced or when poised for improvement and revision;
  • Professional certifications award decisions at the state level that focus on the building industry;
  • Improvement decisions for state-owned or state-managed buildings and design changes to meet green certifications; and
  • Funding or financing allocation processes for energy efficiency upgrades that could involve healthier materials specifications.

We hope this policy brief can guide policy makers and advocates to maximize the co-benefits of equitable, sustainable solutions that prevent energy waste, respond to climate change, and provide pathways to utility savings and improved health for low-income residents.

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