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Get Gephardt: Energy efficiency or affordable housing? Can Utahns have both?

Oct 10, 2022, 11:23 PM | Updated: Oct 13, 2022, 12:32 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Building energy-efficient homes or keeping homes affordable? That’s the debate between environmental groups and home builders in Utah.

The debate is happening because it’s once again time to update Utah’s building code. Every three years, the International Code Council makes recommendations for all states to update their residential building code.

The 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) comes packed with energy-efficient mandates for builders: higher rated insulation, better seals on air ducts and doors, and all interior lights in homes would need to be energy-efficient.

It’s up to each state to determine if they adopt the code, just parts of it, or none of it.

Energy efficiency saves money

Kevin Emerson, director of building efficiency and decarbonization at Utah Clean Energy, supports the new code.

“It presents a huge opportunity for affordability through reduced energy use and energy bills, as well as improving our communities’ environmental footprint by reducing emissions that contribute to climate change,” Emerson said. “It helps increase or improve air quality as well.”

Utah is known for having some of the worst air on the planet due to winter inversions and summer wildfires.

Emerson thinks the time is now to update Utah’s code, something that’s only done every six years in the state.

“When homes are more efficient, they use less energy,” Emerson explained. “They emit less. They contribute less to global climate change.”

Emerson claimed the proposed updates would also save homebuyers money in the long run.

“[The Utah Uniform Building Code Commission] has at their fingertips this national study that shows that homeowners would be expected to save over $300 a year,” Emerson said, “and that’s after you pay for any increased costs.”

That cost-effectiveness report, prepared by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy, suggests a life-cycle savings of $5,783 compared to the 2015 code. Overall, it reports the cost of the energy updates would be paid back with energy savings in 11.1 years for most of Utah.

Not only would it save homeowners money, the report shows carbon emissions statewide would be reduced by 18,740 metric tons the first year, with a 30-year cumulative reduction of 9,141,000 metric tons.

While the code change would increase the initial costs of building a new home — on average $158 annually to a Utahn’s mortgage — Emerson said it’s important to keep perspective.

“That represents less than 1% of the cost of the home,” he explained. “We completely agree with housing affordability. We think we can do everything we can to improve housing affordability. I would say, however, that housing affordability also continues after the home is built, after the home is being lived in, and we need to make sure that’s affordable, too.”

Increased costs without much benefit

Who’s not on board with full adoption of the 2021 energy code? The Utah Home Builders Association.

“It’s not even that we’re opposed,” Executive Director Ross Ford explained. “We’re in favor of anything that will improve the environment. Obviously, there is nobody more invested into what our environment is than those of us that work to build it up and improve it and ultimately sell it.”

Ford’s organization believes the updated code doesn’t help the environment much, or new home buyers.

“What we oppose is a lot of this stuff that doesn’t make any change, it just adds expense so people can feel like we made a change,” he argued.

Groups like Ford’s have done their own studies which show the payoff isn’t there.

Take attic insulation for example. The new code would require a higher insulation R-value. A higher R-value usually means better reduction in heat flow in a home. But there is a scientifically proven diminishing return. Once a certain point is reached in the R-value, the reduction in heat flow levels off to where the benefits between R-values are negligible.

“To add additional insulation into, say, the roof of a home, it doesn’t increase the performance of the home hardly at all,” Ford said.

Ford proposed amendments to several portions of the energy code, like removing the requirement for 100% energy-efficient lighting within homes and lowering those insulation R-values, with some amendments arguing the cost-benefit isn’t there.

In one amendment that would change air sealing and ventilation, Ford suggested the initial cost would be $3,109 for homes in St. George’s climate zone, but the house would likely not be standing once that was paid back in energy savings.

“It would take 240 years to pay that back,” Ford exclaimed.

Ford thought the current code was working pretty well as is, and in some cases, should even be rolled back a bit to let builders meet customers’ demands and not price folks out.

“Every time we increase the cost, it’s gonna put you to where you can’t get the house,” Ford said. “There’s one study out there that shows every time you increase the sale price of a home in Utah, you’ll lose about 1,400 people, that they can no longer qualify for that house.”

Ford said many builders are already doing what they can to improve energy efficiency in new homes, thanks to a carrot approach rather than the stick.

“The utilities are really good at offering rebates,” he explained. “We find we get better compliance statewide with offering an incentive. That incentive only works for above-code things. The utility companies cannot offer an incentive if it’s at code, so every time they tighten up that code, we lose the incentive and then we lose some of that motivation for some builders.”

What happens next?

Both Ford and Emerson had an opportunity to present their arguments to the Utah Uniform Building Code Commission, a group of industry folks who analyze possible code changes and recommend to the state legislature what should be adopted as law.

At the commission meeting in August, the code ended up being a compromise of sorts.

The group voted to adopt many parts of the 2021 residential code, like energy-efficient lighting for all interior lights, while also adopting many of the HBA’s amendments.

Up next, those suggestions are sent to the Business and Labor Interim Committee of the Utah Legislature, who will discuss the suggested changes, make their own, and ultimately create a bill to make them law.

It’s likely a bill to adopt the energy code changes will appear in the 2023 General Session. The code would apply to any new residence built in Utah, or any renovation work on older homes.

In the meantime, there is choice in how green consumers want their homes to be, with many incentives still being offered on energy-efficient products and features.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Get Gephardt: Energy efficiency or affordable housing? Can Utahns have both?