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Musings of an Energy Nerd

The California Model

Why can’t all states adopt California’s approach to energy efficiency?

A net-zero-energy affordable housing project in Cloverdale, California.
Image Credit: California Energy Commission

Here in the U.S., it’s hard to generalize about residential new construction standards. In parts of Massachusetts and California, many residential builders pay close attention to air sealing details, and the use of blower doors is common. Meanwhile, in Kansas and Wyoming, few builders pay much attention to air sealing.

These disparities are due to a variety of factors. But the most important explanation concerns differences in regulations. Massachusetts and California have stricter building codes, and do a better job of enforcing those codes, than Kansas and Wyoming.

To achieve their energy-efficiency goals, states like Massachusetts and California use both carrots and sticks: regulators offer incentives for good practices while making bad practices illegal.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) highlights how states address energy efficiency by publishing an annual report called the “State Energy Efficiency Scorecard.” According to its most recent report, the four states at the top of the list are Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The four states at the bottom of the list are Kansas, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

California is a leader

California has done an excellent job of implementing policies that encourage energy efficiency:

  • California has a strict energy code for buildings, and does a better-than-average job of enforcing it.
  • California has adopted appliance efficiency standards that are more stringent than federal standards.
  • California has an aggressive Renewables Portfolio Standard that will require utilities to use renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal to generate 50% of the state’s electricity by 2030.
  • The California Public Utilities Commission sponsors a variety of programs to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles.

According to most analysts, California’s carrot-and-stick approach — a mixture of subsidies and regulations encouraging energy efficiency — explain why the increase in per…

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  1. Mitch_Costa | | #1

    Good intent, but CA is a failed model for housing
    Judging as an end user, some of the results in energy efficiency are great, but the overall permitting, taxes and fees involved when building a house in CA create such a burden, that many, including myself, are unable to build an affordable house at all. The lack of affordable housing is a problem in many states, but CA leads the way amongst that particular problem.
    It's not that better energy efficiency reqts are too much of a burden, but more that so many other CA reqts add heavy burdens to the building process. At the now standard $275-300 per sq ft to build a new house in my area, I haven't yet been able to find a way to get construction financed - and the end pricetag for a moderate home is certainly more than I can readily afford. I have enough construction experience, engineering knowledge, and determination that I'll eventually find a way to build, and more affordably, but it will require more time and effort than the average person can dedicate.
    Bottom line is be very careful in modeling CA building requirements and enforcement - there is a lot that doesn't work about the CA system which needs to be separated from that which does work.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Mitchell Costa
    My endorsement of California's measures to reduce CO2 emissions is not an endorsement of all California regulations. I agree that California needs to take steps to make housing more affordable. Some of the necessary changes -- particularly the need to allow greater density in neighborhoods with single-family homes -- may be unpopular, but that doesn't make the steps less necessary.

  3. jimfergie | | #3

    I've lived in California my whole life, 63 years in the Landscape Construction industry. I built my home here in Northern California 35 years ago and am currently building a small home in Western North Carolina. Typical building permits for a single family home in our town are between $70,000 - $90,000. That's just for the permit and fees. My building permit in North Carolina was $587.00 total, with no plans required. It took three days to get the permit. My son still lives here but is trying to get out, he'll never afford a house here. My two other daughters left as well. Nice dry climate (or drought ?), super overcrowded, expensive and over regulated.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Jim Clabaugh
    Like Mitchell Costa, you're justifiably worried about over-regulation and housing affordability. I agree with both of you that these issues need to be addressed in California.

    I doubt whether permit fees of $70,000 to $90,000 are entirely due to energy efficiency rules. It wouldn't be hard to find communities in New England that have above-average energy efficiency standards, yet still maintain reasonable permit fees. We need to peel the California onion to discover the reason for the high fees you mention.

  5. gustave_stroes | | #5

    "California has an aggressive
    "California has an aggressive Renewables Portfolio Standard that will require utilities to use renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal to generate 50% of the state’s electricity by 2030."

    I have read that utilities can get around this rule by purchasing non-renewable electricity from OR, NV, AZ etc, which is not counted towards the 50% renewables total.

  6. pfwarner1 | | #6

    As a residential architect and GC in California, I do applaud how far we've come and how much we've moved the industry toward energy efficiency. Necessity is the mother of invention, and many things that were exotic or "deep green" twenty years ago are standard practice now. However, in order to broadly implement these strategies we need to make the process simpler and more cost effective during design, engineering and permitting. Getting homes to pass Title 24 energy code often requires us to make counterintuitive choices (or worse - less efficient) because the energy modeling is so poor. We've spent 100+ years iterating our model building codes and they are now some of the best and most flexible, but we have a long way to go to bring our energy codes up to that standard. I hope our next effort is to streamline and reform our energy codes, while still upping our performance standard. Only then will it see broader adoption.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    I certainly agree with your goals -- making sure that energy codes are logical rather than counterproductive. The ideal energy code allows flexibility without undermining energy targets. I'm sure that there is room for improvement in our building codes.

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