Net-Zero Busybodies

International agreements to lower greenhouse gases like the Kyoto Protocol have proven to be unenforceable, but zoning laws have real teeth. Thus global warming activists have begun to work on the municipal and state level to pass zoning laws that mandate "net-zero" greenhouse gas emissions in new construction, referred to as Net-Zero or "Zero Energy Building" (ZEB) or "Zero Net Energy" (ZNE).

A recent Forbes Magazine article summarizes the state of the movement:

The net zero building movement (where buildings produce as much or more energy than they consume) remains a nascent phenomenon. As of this time last year, the New Buildings Institute -- the organization that tracks such things -- had recognized only 21 buildings as net zero structures. Only two of these exceeded 15,000 square feet. The concept of net zero construction clearly has a long way to go before it becomes mainstreamed.

Unsurprisingly, California has been on the vanguard of net zero building. According to Building Green:

In 2008, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) created a strategic plan calling for, among other energy-efficiency goals, net-zero-energy commercial buildings by 2030 and net-zero-energy residential construction by 2020.

Forbes reports that in June 2013 a new training facility called the Zero Net Energy Center opened in San Leandro, CA. It is a partnership of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595 and the Northern California chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association.

In Cambridge, Mass, an attorney named Michael Connolly and the environmental group Green Cambridge recently got a net zero zoning proposal in front of the City Council. The so-called "Connolly Petition" was pushed sideways by a single vote; the Cambridge Chronicle reports that the "City Council referred the zoning petition to the Planning Board and Ordinance Committee for a recommendation." This is a familiar tactic -- deferring controversial votes to unelected anonymous bureaucrats.

The Connolly Petition proposes that net-zero emissions be achieved in three ways:

1. Energy efficient building practices

Conservatives ought to cheer on entrepreneurs who are devising high-tech solutions to create more efficient buildings (so long as super-insulated structures have adequate ventilation). Unfortunately green building has been corrupted by global warming zealots, who mix the laudable goals of energy efficiency and healthy building with misguided attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Conservatives might celebrate the research and training at the Zero Net Energy Center if it were in response to market demand, rather than, as I suspect, a collaboration between unions and government to dictate new regulations.

2. On-site power generation from rooftop solar panels and ground source heat pumps

Developers might install rooftop solar panels in order to charge premium rents from building occupants who want to feel good about living or working in an LEED certified building. This is how capitalism works, so long as those people don't expect government subsidies. We don't need laws mandating the purchase of inefficient, expensive solar panels that require a 100% duplication of backup power from the energy grid for those times -- e.g., nighttime -- when the sun doesn't shine.

Geothermal heat is more promising, and is very efficient in parts of the world. The pumps that make the system work, however. run on electricity, which in most places comes from fossil fuels. The Department of Energy reports that in the United States, "annual greenhouse gas savings from using a ground source heat pump instead of a high-efficiency furnace in a detached residence" is -0.5 ton/year. Yes, that's a minus sign; in other words, if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gases, heating with natural gas is on average better than running heat pumps with coal.

Furthermore, geothermal requires significant upfront capital investment, which most likely will never be recouped if the natural gas revolution continues to lower energy prices.

3. "Purchase of Massachusetts Class I Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) for any portion of [energy] usage not generated by non-renewable sources"

This third part of the Petition gets to the heart of the proposal. Some critics have suggested that the Petition is a back-door way to shut down all new construction in Cambridge because no building can generate enough energy to be net-zero. The purchase of RECs allows a way around this obstacle. This doesn't mean it's a good idea. Rather than cutting GHG emissions in the real world, the proposal amounts to a tax paid by building occupants to subsidize more green boondoggles like the wind farms that increasingly blight our landscapes. This tax will be levied only on the occupants of new buildings (in perpetuity), counterproductively discouraging construction of energy efficient buildings and making older less efficient buildings more attractive.

Overall, the Connolly Petition will add to the cost of building in Cambridge, a market that competes with the nearby suburbs. Even Quinton Zondervan, the President of Green Cambridge, the organization behind the petition, admitted in an interview that when faced with finding a home for his biotech company:

Cambridge... turned out not to be the ideal location for us. One of the [reasons] was cost, not just absolute cost, but the quality of the space for the amount of rent that you pay. It is just more expensive in Cambridge to get high quality laboratory and office space compared to [Route] 128... although we live in Cambridge, most of the people we end up hiring don't and so for them it is actually more convenient for them to be out there.

Mr. Zondervan's business can't afford Cambridge, and his employees can't afford to live there, but he wants to impose costs on future businesses that might locate there.

The Connolly Petition will also create new layers of red tape and bureaucracy. Cambridge is already governed by extensive Energy Efficiency Provisions of the Massachusetts State Building Code, and the petition will empower a different set of regulators monitoring in the name of Net-Zero. Builders are required to file Greenhouse Gas Mitigation plans and landlords must constantly monitor their tenants' energy use. The "procedures for compliance" section lists four items detailing reporting requirements with statements like, "Tenants must report their compliance to the building operator who reports the building's overall compliance, including tenant's compliance, to the city." It's like living in a condominium where the condo board is the city government.

Mr. Connolly and his friends are examples of what Thomas Sowell calls the "busybody elite" in his excellent series, Mindset of the Left. They have no building expertise and no money in the game, but they presume to dictate building standards to contractors and investors, and they demand that future tenants of these buildings join the front lines of the war against global warming. A good word for their attitude is "paternalism," defined in my dictionary as "the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates' supposed best interest." 

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