My Generation

May 06, 2009
May/June 2009
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Energy production, its use and conservation, has been at the forefront of issues facing my generation, which came of age during the 1970s. Oil embargoes and rationed gas lines are my memories during that period. I come from New England, where oil heat predominates. Storm windows went up, water heaters were wrapped, attic insulation installed, and thermostats set low. We wore sweaters to bed.

During the 1970s, energy independence became the buzzword. Oil became a geopolitical tool that influenced international affairs, while the growing number of nuclear power plants threatened to divide a country sorely in need of healing. A national problem needed a national solution. In response, Congress enacted energy legislation, and President Carter formed DOE, combining functions from across a myriad of agencies and departments, and awarding the new department cabinet status. Energy independence was our goal.

DAVID LEE is the director for EPA’s Residential Branch, overseeing the Energy Star New and Existing Homes programs. Prior to working in the Energy Star program, David was the branch chief responsible for the regulatory program to phase out the use of ozone depleting chemicals at EPA. Over his career, he has worked in several policy offices within EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya.
As you know, we never reached that goal. As with any agenda in Washington, short of a war, other things happen and redirect the nation’s consciousness. The cartel force of OPEC imploded, Three Mile Island derailed the nuclear industry, raging inflation was followed by deep recessions, and growing deficits limited our options. High energy prices receded.
Yet despite these distractions, important work happened, laying the foundation for much of the good work being done now and into the future.

DOE’s Weatherization program has serviced millions of homes, providing comfort and savings to a needy population. We have learned valuable lessons about home retrofits from this program—lessons that help direct home retrofit programs across the United States today. Many of those lessons have been highlighted here in Home Energy. The National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (1992) standards vastly improved the efficiency of home products. Increased stringency in building codes helped limit the growth of energy consumption. In what I believe to be a major step in improving energy efficiency in homes, a talented team of building scientists developed HERS in the 1990s. To this day, HERS serves as the basis for rating homes as Energy Star.

All this is very important, and may one day help us to achieve energy independence. However, an environmental problem has emerged that is inextricably linked to that of energy use, one that had always seemed theoretically plausible, but too far-fetched to be believed—global warming. All this knowledge and experience will now be called upon to address these two linked problems.

Global warming is real. It does not show itself through long gas lines, but through the melting of the polar caps and through more severe storms. And while some people in northern Michigan may believe that global warming would be good thing, in fact, it is not. Rising sea levels, shifting agricultural belts, altered weather patterns, and more-severe storms are predicted, disrupting life as we know it. As usual, it will be the impoverished people in equatorial zones throughout the world who will suffer most. Critics argue that the computer models are inaccurate, that there are large gaps in our knowledge. True. But even a little bit a common sense tells us that global warming is a problem. The earth is as warm as it is   due to the greenhouse effect. Without our atmosphere to trap heat as a greenhouse traps heat, the average temperature of our earth should be 0°F, rather than the 60°F we enjoy. This is indisputable. And we are steadily increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, another indisputable fact. You do not need to run a general circulation model to understand that this is not going to end well.

So the next 25 years? We all will be very, very busy. A new administration has arrived, one that pledges action on global warming. The most talked-about policy tool for controlling greenhouse gas emissions is a cap-and-trade program, where emissions are limited to a certain level, and the right to emit greenhouse gases can be traded. However, large issues remain to be addressed. They include setting baselines, allocating emissions rights, and developing an international treaty—for without China’s and India’s participation, all this work will go for nothing. This will not happen overnight.
For this reason, while the cap-and-trade system may become the regulatory framework to measure U.S. compliance with any international agreement, there is a good chance that legislators will pursue additional means to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There will be many options on the table—far too many to discuss in a short column in one issue of Home Energy. There will be calls for continued research into advanced technologies, smart grids and meters, possibly increased fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, and required utility renewable energy portfolio standards. Yet there is one option that continues to be the least expensive, one option that will help reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and energy dependence. That option is energy efficiency.

The residential sector is one that could be targeted for special treatment. While the new-construction market has been severely hit by the current recession, many people are calling for greater stringency in the building codes. Last fall, code officials meeting in Minneapolis almost passed a new code that would have achieved a 30% improvement in energy efficiency over the existing code. There will be continued pressure to improve and enforce these codes.
With over 120 million households in the United States, the existing-homes market is another target area that is being eyed by policymakers. With plug load growing to more than 50% of a home’s energy consumption, tightening product and appliance standards, and promoting Energy Star products, are other policy tools that could be pursued in tandem with, or independent of, a cap-and-trade program.

Home retrofits are another option, but here the solutions are not national, but local. The average home is more than 30 years old, and in need of improvements. We at EPA estimate that the average home could be improved by 20%–30% of total energy use. This represents a significant savings in energy, and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. National programs like Home Performance with Energy Star can provide a template for retrofit programs, and DOE, EPA, and HUD have supported national standard-setting organizations such as the Building Performance Institute (BPI) and the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), but the real action is at the local level. To date there are close to 30 metropolitan-, utility-, or state-based programs directed toward whole-house retrofits, and these programs have retrofitted close to 50,000 homes to date. Many more retrofits are needed, and they will be done at the local level.

In the end, it is the states where the action will be, and in fact already is. In December 2008, California passed sweeping legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. A key part of the legislation is a cap-and-trade program that will take effect in 2012. This program will rely on 31 new regulations directed at several parts of the economy, including new construction. The northeast states have already implemented the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, to limit greenhouse gas emissions, while building off their strong energy efficiency programs to make significant cuts in energy use. The federal and state programs go hand in hand, but it will be the states that lead.

The next 25 years will be interesting. And you will read all about it here in Home Energy.  
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