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Mayor announces agreement on new energy conservation plan

Wednesday, October 22, 2008 by Mark Richardson

After more than eight months of study and frequent heated debate between realtors and environmentalists—as well as a supporting role in last spring’s City Council elections—a new energy conservation plan has finally emerged to the singing of “Kumbaya.”


The plan, now set to make the rounds of city boards and commissions, would require sellers of most older residential and commercial buildings to get an energy audit before they can be sold or leased.


Mayor Will Wynn announced the program at a City Hall news conference Tuesday, flanked by representatives of the Austin Board of Realtors (AB0R) and the Environmental Defense Fund, both of whom praised the plan.


Socar Chatmon-Thomas, chair of ABOR, said, “This program will put important information about the condition of the home’s efficiency into the hands of potential buyers.” She added, “That will lead to greater consumer awareness of energy efficiency’s impact on the cost of owning a home and will inform market-driven change in Austin. ”


Environmental Defense Fund, which is known for using market-based approaches to tackle pressing environmental challenges, supported energy audits as an important consumer protection tool.


“Consumers should have a right to know how much utility bills will add to the cost of home ownership,” said Jim Marston, regional director of Environmental Defense Fund.  “This is important under any circumstance, but it’s especially critical in a time when we are all budgeting more closely.”


However, some critics, like Roy Whaley with the Austin Sierra Club, say the plan may be doomed to failure because it does not mandate that the proposed energy upgrades be made.


Wynn said the plan would cost the average home seller between $200 and $300 to perform the audit, which is mainly a visual inspection of the premises.  “We believe this program will result in dramatic energy savings at our electric utility and in household budgets,” Wynn said.  “Most of the time people will do what’s in their economic self-interest – and when they see the math, the savings from basic efficiency upgrades will be too obvious to ignore.”


Austin Energy estimates that if voluntary program participation targets are met, after 10 years Austin residents and businesses would see a net savings of $555 million on utility bills, and peak electric demand would be reduced by 225 megawatts.


“At a time when energy costs are soaring, increasing efficiency and avoiding expensive new power plants is a critical part of our strategy for keeping electric rates lower for residents and businesses,” Wynn said.


There are exemptions for some single family residences, including those that are less that 10 years old, that that have participated in previous Austin Energy efficiency programs, homes subject to foreclosure or transfer within a family, homes owned by low or moderate income individuals and homes designate as historic.


Energy audits would be performed by contractors certified by Austin Energy, and would not only identify energy deficiencies, but would also provide the homeowner with cost benefit analysis of bringing the home up to standards.


As a compromise, the task force voted against requiring mandatory energy efficiency upgrades. But the Sierra Club’s Whaley said it could be the plan’s undoing.


“The best time to get people make the changes is when they are selling or buying the home,” Whaley said. “The cost can be financed in the loan, a time when they can best afford to make the changes.”

He criticized the city’s real estate community for its opposition to mandatory measures.


“The real estate folks aren’t concerned about the homebuyers or the home sellers,” he said. “They are concerned about the real estate agents… they are concerned about themselves.”


He said other needed changes in real estate, such removal of lead paint and asbestos, fair housing practices, were mandated because they were needed.


Beyond single-family regulations, the rules would also apply to multi-family housing and commercial properties. Owners of multi-family housing would have to perform the energy audits within two years of its passage and reveal the results to potential renters. Commercial properties would use the Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool and report its Energy Star rating to prospective buyers and tenants.


During last spring’s runoff between Laura Morrison and Cid Galindo, Galindo went to great lengths to portray Morrison as supporting mandatory upgrades costing homeowners thousands of dollars. Other candidates sparred over what was then only a proposal but to a lesser extent.


Although the Mayor announced the task force’s proposal, the Council will still have to approve it and direct the city manager to take appropriate action to implement the plan.

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