The Biden Administration’s Plan to Make American Homes More Efficient

In recent days, the Biden Administration has been on a remarkable roll when it comes to the environment, with one key announcement after another helping to cement its reputation as the most climate-conscious in American history. In some cases, it defended previous decisions: the White House managed to get aid to Ukraine without giving in

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In recent days, the Biden Administration has been on a remarkable roll when it comes to the environment, with one key announcement after another helping to cement its reputation as the most climate-conscious in American history. In some cases, it defended previous decisions: the White House managed to get aid to Ukraine without giving in to Mike Johnson’s demand that it revoke its pause in new export permits for liquefied natural gas. Some tried to make up for bad decisions: the Interior Department protected a wide swath of the Alaskan Arctic from new oil drilling, not far from the site where it had bewilderingly approved the Willow project oil complex last year. Some were shiny and new, tied to Earth Day: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, the original sponsors of the Green New Deal, joined President Biden on Monday as he launched Solar for All, a seven-billion-dollar program to bring solar panels to low- and moderate-income Americans. Some summoned the romance of the past: the feds opened applications for the brand new Climate Corps, which is modelled on the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps but with young people signing up to bring clean energy to communities across the country. And some, as befits a fairly wonky Administration, were easy-to-miss technical changes that nonetheless may produce enormous change in the years ahead.

The best examples of that latter category came on Thursday, first with a new rule on cleaning up power plants which could save more than a billion tons of carbon by mid-century, and then with a little-noticed ruling by the Department of Housing and Urban Development which will require builders putting up federally funded houses and apartments to comply with a set of more recent building and energy codes instead of earlier, laxer standards. (The timing of the move owes less to Earth Day than to the fact that, under the Congressional Review Act, decisions announced before April 3srcth will be harder for a possible Trump Administration to overturn.) Though the new rule applies directly to only about a hundred and fifty thousand homes a year, the effect should ripple out across the building sector, and, in the process, help address not just rising temperatures but also the rising price of owning a home. And, of course, it comes despite a caterwauling campaign of protest from the industry affected, which has done all it could to cling to the past.

The U.S. clearly needs more houses: 653,1src4 people in the U.S. were officially classified as homeless in a HUD survey last winter, a speciously exact number which masks many millions more who are “housing insecure.” And those new homes need to be efficient, because about a fifth of American greenhouse-gas emissions come from the country’s approximately one hundred and forty-four million dwellings. The industry—represented by the National Association of Home Builders—has done its best to put those two crises at odds, complaining that meeting new standards would raise the price of homes. As the executive vice-president of its North Carolina affiliate told the Washington Post earlier this year, “I’m not going to get into a debate about climate change, what I’m going to get into a debate about is affordability.” His group insisted that following the new codes would add twenty thousand dollars to the price of a home, a scary enough talking point to persuade the state legislature to not only block the new code but to prevent any new energy codes at all until at least 2src31. (This kind of ostrich behavior is a long-standing Tarheel tradition: in 2src12, the state banned local development agencies from “basing coastal policies on the latest scientific predictions of how much the sea level will rise,” a policy which has somehow failed to stop the rise in sea levels.) Similar laws are under consideration in Michigan and Colorado; as the Bloomberg opinion editor Mark Gongloff wrote in February, “the industry has the political muscle to protect its profits.”

The shallowness of the industry’s argument takes just a few minutes to reveal. The cost of housing is not just the cost of the mortgage—it’s also the cost of operation. If you put more insulation into the walls, the first cost will indeed rise: a federal study not paid for by the Home Builders put the increase at about sixty-four hundred dollars. But more insulation, and better air sealing, and modern energy-efficient appliances, reduce the cost of running the house. Homeowners pay all these bills—mortgage, electric, heat—every month. And when you put them all together you find that the total cost of owning a house built to modern standards is considerably less: about four hundred dollars a year on average for single-family homes, according to federal officials, and about two hundred and fifty dollars a year for apartments in complexes that are more than four stories tall. In a country where one in four households struggles to pay its energy bills—a number that rises to one in two low-income households—that’s money worth saving. (In North Carolina alone, energy savings from modern codes would be $5.3 billion over the next thirty years.) So, as twenty-eight of the nation’s large housing and environmental groups said in a letter to HUD earlier this month, the increase in the sticker price is “a small price to pay for the more significant annual savings and enhanced long-term affordability and climate resiliency that energy-efficient homes offer.”

We’re not talking the Jetsons’ space homes here. “These are commonsense energy-efficiency improvements,” Ali Zaidi, the White House’s national climate adviser, said. “There isn’t a trade-off between building smarter, more efficient housing and delivering it at a low cost for more and more Americans.” Jesse Thompson, a Maine architect whose firm, Kaplan Thompson Architects, specializes in affordable housing, describes what it’s like to walk into one of the HUD-funded apartments that he’s developing in twin five-story buildings in the town of Lewiston. “You’d notice that all these apartments have a fresh-air system, so every bedroom has fresh air coming in, and that that fresh air has been warmed up through heat recovery,” he told me. “And you’d notice the heating system is tiny, much smaller than you’d expect, because the insulation and air sealing are being policed. It would be quiet, bright, sunny. You wouldn’t have to have a noisy bath fan running.” A thousand miles south, in the tornado and hurricane belt, Mackenzie Stagg, an assistant professor of architecture at Auburn University, adds that better-insulated homes survive disasters more easily: “If you lose power, it’s well-sealed and insulated—it will stay comfortable longer, whether from the summer heat or the winter cold.”

Thompson, in Maine, dismissed the arguments of the Home Builders association. “They always object,” he said. “In 2srcsrc9, they wanted to stick with the building code from 1998. . . . The ball moves, they adjust, then they object to the new thing. And the objections are always the same and yet somehow the business survives.” He added, “That’s one of the most amazing things to me about human progress—there’s always a group of people who think we’re moving too fast.”

For some reason, that group always seems to include the Republican Party, which, this month, proposed in the House—I am not kidding—the Stop Unaffordable Dishwasher Standards (SUDS) Act, the Liberty in Laundry Act, the Affordable Air Conditioning Act, the Clothes Dryer Reliability Act, the Hands Off Our Home Appliances Act, and the Refrigerator Freedom Act. The Party’s Presidential candidate is notorious for his defense of incandescent light bulbs because L.E.D. alternatives make him “look orange” (his Administration literally blocked a Bush-era rule requiring more efficient lighting) and also for his umbrage at water-conserving toilets, apparently under the impression that Americans are now routinely “flushing ten, fifteen times, as opposed to once.” Don’t get him started on modern showers: “They take a shower and water comes dripping out. Just dripping out, very quietly dripping out.” If there was ever a place where the Trump team looked old and tired (and orange), and the Biden Administration looks modern and vigorous, this is it. ♦

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