Historic Vote by US Building Officials

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Reuters reports that US building officials nationwide have voted to support the first building codes that require 30 percent more efficient buildings for every state under the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code.

Delegates also voted to eliminate the weaker Energy Chapter of the International Residential Code, supplanting it with a single nationwide uniform energy code for residential and commercial buildings.

Although some states, like California, have long had energy efficiency requirements in building codes, with a resulting flat-lining in home energy use in the state since the 1970s (to about half the average US use) most states have little or no requirements for reducing energy use. The International code has been the lowest common denominator; compelling safety, but little else in building codes. The minimum standards allowed energy to be wasted in heating and cooling homes in non compliant states by not requiring weather tight walls, roofs, windows or doors.

… … …

“It is notable that the votes that will have the most profound impact on national energy and environmental policy this year weren’t held in Washington or a state capital, but by governmental officials assembled by the International Code Council (ICC) in Charlotte, NC,” said William Fay, Executive Director of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition.

You can read the entire article here.

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Calls For A Third Party Smart Meter Study

Pacific Gas and Electric Company has been facing a number of challenges in its attempts to roll out Smart Meter technology throughout California.  Advocates of the technology promote the meters as an essential component in realizing energy efficiency goals. Opponents have raised concerns about the accuracy and privacy of the meters and are increasingly raising concerns about public health and safety issues. The meters use wireless electromagnetic signals that provide real-time readings. Some customers complain that the new meters are causing them to be over-charged, yet it seems inevitable that there should be some discrepancy when moving from an older less precise system to a newer more responsive one.

However, the privacy and health and safety arguments represent much more complex and nuanced issues. The technology used by the meters is not much different than that used for cell phones or a myriad other everyday devices. However, under the current deployment of the meters, there is no ‘opt-out’ proviso, meaning that those who raise concerns over the meters are not left with a choice. Thus, it is not just a cut-and-dried matter of accuracy, but also a stickier problem of public perception, personal choice and the questioning of the adequacy of the Federal Communication Commissions’ safety standards by local communities. For example, it was widely reported this week the Town of Fairfax issued an emergency ordinance that will put a six month moratorium on the installation of the meters citing accuracy, privacy and safety concerns.

According to an article in the San Rafael Patch, San Rafael Assemblyman Jared Huffman who represents Marin and Southern Sonoma County (including the Town of Fairfax) has called for an independent review by the California Council on Science and Technology to determine the adequacy of FCC standards and provide more substantial science to the debate.  Huffman commented “If the FCC standards are deemed adequate, then the SmartMeter program can move forward with greater public confidence in the safety of the devices,” Huffman said.  “If the standards are inadequate, we need to know that so that we can get to work on better standards.”

Read more about Fairfax’s decision here, and listen to KQED’s coverage here.

Current Events – The Cost of Energy Production

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There have been many analyses of the financial cost of energy production – in this post I am focused on the human and environmental costs.

It can seem like a huge practical joke – the fossil fuels that we have become so dependent on are tucked away into all kinds of inaccessible corners of the planet. And the more we need them to keep up with increasing demand, the harder and harder they are to find and to safely extract.

This issue of “safe” extraction has been in the news and on my mind a lot lately.

First, there was explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.

Then, the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion that is presumed to have killed 11 workers. The estimates of the size of the resulting oil spill are being revised upwards (again).

There have been numerous other disasters over the years, both in the United States and the rest of the world.

There is always initial shock and outrage at these disasters, of course. But the focus of the outrage is on whether proper permits were acquired and safety procedures followed. Doubt is and will be expressed at company management and government for their oversight and handling of the crisis.

But there is little shock and outrage over the potential long-term human and environmental cost of extracting these fossil fuels, and over how little we seem to value the resulting energy. There is real risk involved in getting energy from the source, into a usable format, and transporting it to the location where it will be used.

While we should absolutely improve oversight and regulation of these enterprises, a major lesson of these disasters is that we need to rethink why we really need this energy in the first place and to use this precious commodity with increased care.