Home energy incentives: Solving one problem, causing another?

January 1, 2014

 

Cities across the country are looking for ways to become greener, implementing various policies to reduce emissions, clear the air and clean up waterways.

The Central Valley appears no different, with communities here also considering ways in which we can leave a smaller ecological footprint. However, in our rush to adopt green policies, cities should consider how these policies affect growth and development, which ultimately has a greater impact on our environment than any single regulation.

Take Stockton, for example. As part of its 2008 settlement with the Sierra Club, Stockton officials are weighing a new ordinance requiring homeowners to undergo an energy assessment for renovations valued over $20,000, which may in turn require extra costs to make that home more energy efficient.

The ordinance seems intuitive for a city looking to reduce emissions. Old, leaky homes waste energy unnecessarily, so a policy that tries to shore up these homes makes sense on the surface. But not all policies intended to lower emissions end up being good policies. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, the ordinance could unintentionally hurt development patterns that could actually increase emissions overall by dis-incentivizing neighborhood revitalization and increasing demand for suburban homes where families are more dependent on cars.

The amount of energy our homes use is not insignificant, but our cars use much more, especially in the Central Valley where most residents need to drive everywhere. According the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles were six times higher than residential uses in 2012. Total energy use by transportation was two and a half times greater than what was used in our homes.

Because automobiles are the biggest emitters of pollution, it stands that policies should be geared toward encouraging people to take fewer and shorter trips by car. One of the best ways to reduce car trips is to promote infill and revitalization of older areas where walking and biking are easier.

However, because existing homes in older areas often require costlier renovations, Stockton’s proposed ordinance may inadvertently stunt revitalization efforts of communities like midtown and Magnolia where walkable neighborhoods could actually take hold. Because an energy assessment will add time and money to an already pricey renovation process, some homeowners may think twice about buying and fixing up homes in these older neighborhoods. Instead, those homeowners may turn move to newer, suburban homes, which in turn increases vehicle miles traveled. That would negate any small gains made by making a handful of homes more energy efficient.

On a broad scale, rather than saddling more costs on people who want to reinvest in existing homes, cities could incentivize green building standards by offering credits or breaks in fees at some level. This would make developers and home buyers more likely to consider better insulation, new windows and other energy-saving techniques.

A greater policy that would have a more significant impact on pollution would be to incentivize residential development in the city’s core, whether it’s renovating an old Victorian home or building apartments downtown. Getting more people in older neighborhoods closer to amenities means fewer car trips, which in turn lowers emissions from cars, which would help the city mitigate the environmental effects of a growing population.

Greener policies are important, especially here in the Central Valley where we suffer from poor air quality, and city officials should be applauded for trying to find solutions. However, just because a policy is green doesn’t automatically mean it’s good.

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