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WFAE reporter David Boraks explores how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

Raleigh's fight over energy efficiency continues

New rules will affect what many North Carolina consumers pay for electricity and rates are set.
David Boraks
New rules might affect what many North Carolina consumers pay for energy.

This story appeared first in WFAE reporter David Boraks' weekly newsletter. Subscribe today to get Climate News straight to your email inbox each week.

I've spent a lot of time this spring reporting on efforts in Raleigh to modernize energy efficiency standards in the state building code — and rival attempts to block those efforts. It's a twisting-turning political battle with proposed tighter regulations for things such as insulation, windows and heating and cooling systems, set against a General Assembly bill that would preempt them.

On Tuesday, the state Building Code Council, appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper, voted to delay until December a decision on stricter standards for new homes and office buildings. (Existing structures wouldn't be affected.) A spokesman for the council said it is still waiting for a report from staff about the projected costs of the legislation — a key part of the debate.

This is a fight mainly between the governor-appointed building council and the building industry. The North Carolina Home Builders Association, which is behind efforts to block new rules, is one of the largest political donors in Raleigh, according to campaign finance data website Transparency USA. (For more on the money trail behind this effort, see John Deem's coverage in the Winston-Salem Journal.)

The industry opposes updating the energy conservation code, saying proposed new requirements would make homes unaffordable for North Carolinians. The association says a survey of members found the changes would add an average of $20,400 to the cost of a new home.

"Here's the main issue: It's just too expensive to inflict that onto the public, and the, you know, the homebuilding industry and the major remodeling industry," Republican Rep. Mark Brody, a homebuilder who represents Anson and Union Counties, told me in April. He's the lead sponsor of House Bill 488, which not only would block any updates until 2031, but also would reorganize the council into separate commercial and residential committees and limit the governor's appointment power.

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But a data analysis by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for the Building Code Council came up with a far lower number for added construction costs: $4,763 to $6,057 for single-family homes and $1,552 to $2,029 for multi-family units. The laboratory also said annual savings on energy bills would begin in the first year, and those savings would pay off the additional upfront costs in a few years.

The fiscal report that the Building Code Council is waiting on will incorporate the analysis from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, according to people familiar with the process. The council expects to receive it this summer, in time for another public hearing at its next quarterly meeting in September. A final vote would come at the council's December meeting.

The Building Code Council has proposed updating North Carolina rules to 2021 international building code standards.

"We've been stuck for years with an outdated energy code," said David Neal, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who has been following the debate. "We've got outdated standards in place. And that means every time a new home is built to that outdated standard, the families that are going to live in that home for decades are locked into higher energy costs than they otherwise would have."

There's also concern that delaying building code updates another eight years could disqualify cities and counties from federal grants. And state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey worries that an outdated building code could translate into higher insurance rates for homeowners.

Neal says North Carolina has not kept up with other states because of pushback by the homebuilding industry.

"Updates to energy conservation codes happen regularly around the country and North Carolina has fallen behind. And we haven't seen the doomsday scenario (elsewhere) that the homebuilders project," Neal said. "There are problems with affordable housing. They're not caused by having an updated code. They're caused by a lot of people moving to North Carolina, not enough housing being built. So it's a supply and demand issue."

Meanwhile, experts note that using less electricity is the cheapest way to cut emissions from power plants and help the state meet its climate goals. As Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said in April: "From an environmental perspective, we always talk about the electron that you do not use is the greenest electron."

The council this week also moved forward a rival proposal, backed by the home building industry, that would ditch the proposed 2024 updates and instead keep the rules where they are. That's also up for a public hearing in September, and would be up for adoption in December alongside the proposed changes.

By state law, the council is supposed to adopt an updated code every six years. The next deadline is July 1, 2024, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2025. But if either the rival Building Code Council proposal or House Bill 488 pass, North Carolina would keep using rules last updated in 2018 that include standards adopted as far back as 2009, Neal said. That would make it harder for the state to achieve its goals of cutting carbon emissions to help the fight to slow global warming.

"We really need to get this right," Neal said. "We need to adopt a current energy conservation code, one that will not only save families money on their utility bills, but will be part of a broader collective effort to decarbonize our economy. The more we can get done outside of utility investments, the better off we're all going to be."

House Bill 488 is awaiting further action in the state Senate. It's sitting in the Senate Finance Committee, but no date has been set for a hearing.

Demystifying all those new government incentives

  • A 30% tax credit, (up to $150), for a home energy audit to help you uncover potential energy savings from weatherization and
  • A tax credit of up to 30%, or a maximum of $2,000 a year, for heat pumps. Low-income households could get more. And home energy rebates are being rolled out nationwide through state energy offices.
  • A 30% tax credit, up to $600 a year, for installing an energy-efficient water heater.
  • A tax credit of 30% of the cost of new, more insulating doors, up to $500 a year and up to $250 per door.
  • Other tax credits and rebates are available for installing battery storage, upgrading electrical panels and sealing air handling ducts.

Birds, birds, birds

Tykee James, president of the DC Audubon Society, and Erin Connelly, holding her 10-month-old son, Louis, search in the treetops for birds in Fort Slocum Park in Washington, D.C.
Melissa Block
Tykee James, president of the DC Audubon Society, and Erin Connelly, holding her 10-month-old son, Louis, search in the treetops for birds in Fort Slocum Park in Washington, D.C.

If birds are your thing, a couple of stories on NPR recently caught my attention. This week, Victoria Hansen of South Carolina Public Radio reported on an island in Charleston harbor called Crab Bank. A hurricane wiped out the island in 2017, taking away nesting areas for several species of Atlantic Coast bird species. But workers have built a man-made island using sand dredged from the harbor, and the bird population is rebounding. See: "An island in South Carolina provides much needed sanctuary for shorebirds."

And last week, NPR's Melissa Block visited a Washington, D.C., park with birders to catch a glimpse of migratory birds stopping on their journey north. In the heart of the capital, they saw eastern wood pee-wees, blue-gray gnatcatchers and a great crested flycatcher, among others. See: "Heads up! Stunning birds are all around us, even in dense cities."

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.