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City to consider new building standards to encourage efficiency, solar power

Friday, May 27, 2016 by Jack Craver

The city of Austin is poised to update its energy code to comply with the latest edition of the International Energy Conservation Code.

“It’s really very, very modest,” said Debbie Kimberly, vice president of customer energy solutions for Austin Energy, in an interview with the Austin Monitor Thursday.

Her emphasis on that point was ostensibly prompted by a series of allegations made by Council Member Don Zimmerman at a meeting earlier that day of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee. Zimmerman accused Austin Energy of imposing onerous new rules that would drive up the cost of living in Austin and lead to further economic segregation in the city.

“It’s a terrible idea,” he said.

The new building standards include a number of small technical changes, including a requirement that 100 percent of the lighting be “high-efficacy,” up from the previous requirement that 90 percent meet those standards.

The utility estimates that the new standards will raise the cost of construction for the typical single-family, three-bedroom home by $350, but that the increased efficiencies will deliver savings to the homeowner between $37-$72 a year. It estimated that small commercial buildings will make up for the increased construction costs almost immediately, while for the largest office buildings it will take a little under seven years.

“Keep in mind, these are buildings that will be around for 50 to 100 years,” said Kimberly, who maintained that the building industry supports the changes and has already begun building in accordance with the new standards.

She also added a crucial fact that she didn’t mention during the committee hearing: the city is merely changing its code to be in accordance with state law. The legislature last year passed a bill adopting the 2015 IECC as the new state code and mandated that all municipalities be in compliance by September 1, 2016.

“If we did nothing, we would be out of compliance with the state code,” she explained.

When reached for comment, Zimmerman was skeptical: “Am I supposed to believe that?” he asked.

Indeed, the bill passed on a bipartisan vote of 111-18 in the House and 29-1 in the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in June of last year, making Zimmerman’s battle even lonelier than his typical fights against the majority of City Council.

However, when it comes to an initiative the utility is pushing in order to increase the use of solar energy, Zimmerman is on more familiar terrain. That amendment to the city energy code, which will require most new buildings to reserve roof space for solar panels, is not prompted by Republicans at the state Capitol, but by renewable energy goals set by City Council in 2013. Those goals specified major increases in solar power generation, a certain percentage of which will come from individual residences and businesses.

If Council approves the amendment this summer, Kimberly guessed it would go into effect on January 1, 2017.

Council Member Leslie Pool, in an ostensible rebuke to Zimmerman, thanked Kimberly for the presentation, noting that “those of us who understand why we’re moving towards renewable energy sources” appreciated the effort.

“Lest there be any belief that there is a lack of support on the dais for what Austin Energy is doing in this area, let me assure you that that’s not the case,” she said.

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