Energy-efficient construction is more climate friendly, more comfortable and cheaper to own over the long run. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
In the last couple of years, Oregon experienced unprecedented and extreme heat waves and wildfires, resulting from climate change. During these events, those fortunate enough to have comfortable homes and workplaces can go inside to escape the heat and smoke.
Many Oregonians don’t realize the very buildings that protect us from the hazards of climate change are, collectively, the second largest contributor to climate pollution, stemming mostly from the energy used to operate them.
Since April, I’ve been a proud participant in Oregon’s Resilient Efficient Buildings Task Force. This diverse group of builders, community members and elected leaders was appointed by the state Legislature to address the challenge of lowering climate pollution from homes and buildings while also making them healthier and safer.
As a builder, I know from experience that proven methods and technologies are already available to build new buildings and retrofit existing ones to be healthier, more comfortable to occupy, cheaper to operate, more climate-friendly and more resilient to outside harms like heat, smoke, and other air pollution. In new construction, it’s already less expensive to build this way.
After nearly a year of careful consideration, discussion, and debate, the task force has recommended a set of sensible, pragmatic, and proven ideas for consideration by the 2023 Oregon State Legislature.
It recommends the Legislature give stronger direction so what we build from now on is much more energy efficient, which means less energy wasted, lower bills and higher resilience to outside harms like heat, smoke and other air pollution. We also recommend measuring the carbon footprint of building materials like steel and concrete so architects and builders can make an informed choice for more climate friendly construction.
A critical step is to power more of our buildings with clean electricity and rely less on methane (or “natural”) gas for heating, hot water and cooking. In existing buildings, our task force recommends promoting, incentivizing and helping people pay for energy-saving upgrades like better windows, doors and insulation – and doing everything we can as a state to help install more electric super efficient heat pumps. As a comfort bonus, heat pumps naturally provide cooling, which can be lifesaving during heat events.
Transitioning to highly efficient electric heat pumps for water heating and air heating/cooling in Oregon homes and buildings will generate $1.1 billion in system-wide savings by 2050. Building all-electric saves money in both construction and operation costs, such that a new all-electric home in the Northwest can save its residents $4,300 over 15 years compared to a house relying on gas. In existing buildings, we need policies that prompt owners to replace older systems with efficient, climate-friendly ones as they reach the ends of their useful lives, if not before.
Thanks to Oregon’s abundance of clean, low-cost electricity, swapping out gas appliances for electric ones is a huge climate win too, reducing the average household’s climate footprint by 50% – the equivalent of completely giving up a car. These changes will benefit Oregonians across the income spectrum, particularly low-income residents who already pay a much higher percentage of their income towards energy bills.
On Jan. 17, the Oregon Legislature will convene for the 2023 session and state leaders will have in hand the task force’s recommendations, and they must act. The process was inclusive and delivered sound recommendations based on extensive modeling, analysis and best practices. One of the best outcomes of the process was discovering how many solutions already exist. A handful of practical policies to stimulate the adoption of existing and proven technologies can deliver safe homes, lower energy bills, AND reduce our climate pollution.
As we work to resolve the state’s housing crisis, let’s create a new generation of smart, energy-efficient and healthy buildings that offer safe respite from the temperature extremes and wildfire smoke that are already here – and help protect our children from worse extremes in the future.
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