My Turn: Energy code shows proactive plan against climate change

Recent news coverage of the county council’s work on amending the building code, and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), seems to be missing the point. Specifically, the point that the higher efficiency standards required by the code for new construction will save homeowners, businesses, and taxpayers more than $1 billion in energy costs over the next few decades.

Yes, the codes need small adjustments to be customized for each county’s unique considerations— which is why the counties are given an ample two-year window to make amendments. Yes, in cooler areas and higher elevations, the tropical code should remain an option. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the new code, overall, protects consumers; ensures comfortable, healthy and cost-effective homes; facilitates compatibility with new technology; and cuts carbon emissions to boot.

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We should be wary of anyone who tries to frame this long-overdue building code update as a tradeoff between affordable housing and environmental objectives, and focuses narrowly on cost increases on the construction side while selectively ignoring the positive impacts and the significant net cost reductions over the lifecycle of a home or building.

There has been a lot of pushback from the construction industry about these codes, which went into effect unamended after the county failed to take any action inside of their two-year window.

But, responsible builders and architects will agree that we should not cut one-time construction costs at the expense of health, comfort, safety, and financial savings for homeowners over the long-term.

This past summer was the hottest on record and we are beginning to experience the impacts of climate change in real time: heat and humidity are worsening, cooling trade winds are less frequent, and the zone in which passive cooling measures are enough to keep homes comfortable is shrinking. The demand for air conditioning is soaring and will continue to grow.

Many of us have experienced those days when family members huddle into the AC room to try to find some relief during the hottest hours of the day, knowing that the electric bill will be higher, and trying to seal doors and windows with rolled-up towels to prevent the expensive cool air from escaping. Implementing the IECC means that residents won’t be battling against a home designed for a past where we had lower temperatures and more breezes. It’s our responsibility to ensure that new homes built in hotter areas and changing climate conditions are healthy, comfortable, and aren’t saddling buyers with a lifetime of costly bills so that the builder can make a few extra bucks in the short term.

It is ironic that, in the same month in which the county council passed a resolution declaring a climate emergency (while taking no substantive steps to actually do anything about it), they are also promoting a narrative that the building codes which would cut energy use by one third are a negative and draconian measure being imposed on the county from above.

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The council should expediently get on with their work of making reasonable amendments to the code, which should have started two years ago. They should also take this opportunity to educate the public, themselves, and the building industry on the importance of energy efficiency for consumer protection, for meeting the state’s renewable energy goals, and for mitigating the impacts of climate change, which they themselves just recently recognized as an existential threat to humanity and the natural world.

Nicole Lowen (D) is a member of the Hawaii House of Representatives who represents Kona’s District 6.