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Opinion

Insulation for the Future: Advancing Building Energy Efficiency and Resilience

In this age of instant connectivity, virtual encounters allow communication and cooperation with unprecedented speed and ease. But there’s something about a face-to-face meeting that really helps people reach common ground.

This month, 125 contractors, manufacturers and suppliers from the insulation industry came together from across the country to do just that — they met on Capitol Hill with congressional representatives to discuss issues and ideas for harnessing the power of the insulation industry to tackle some of our country’s most-pressing problems.

Every year, news stories highlight the human costs and economic consequences of a changing environment. Momentum is growing behind solutions that can address these environmental challenges in ways that strengthen U.S. economic productivity and competitiveness.

Congressional action to enact policies that optimize the energy efficiency of new and existing buildings would be a great step on this path. A recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s U.S. Global Change Research Program shows that the returns on investing in greater energy productivity are clear and compelling.

Here are some key takeaways:

— Energy efficiency is the most-effective strategy for reducing carbon emissions. The International Energy Agency reports that energy efficiency alone can provide 40 percent of emissions reductions needed to meet global targets.

— Energy efficiency is the largest sector in the clean energy industry with 2.25 million American jobs. The insulation industry’s workforce exceeds 500,000 individuals across manufacturing, distribution and installation.

— Implementing current best practices and technology will dramatically reduce building energy use — a sector that accounts for 40 percent of total energy use in the United States.

— Efficiency gains save consumers billions of dollars in energy costs annually — money that consumers can invest back into the U.S. economy.

Focusing on building energy efficiency is a practical way to create jobs and save energy. In every building sector, there’s tremendous potential for impact from achievable goals.

Residential buildings: In 2018, the United States built more than 800,000 homes. Federal policy should ensure that new home construction meets current model building energy code standards and incentivize net-zero, energy-ready new home construction. The United States also should capture the massive carbon reduction potential in more than 100 million existing homes through a national home energy-efficiency retrofit initiative.

Commercial buildings: Existing commercial buildings consume 18 percent of all energy in the United States — a massive opportunity to cut emissions through energy-efficient retrofits. The United States should support policies that update energy codes and incentivize private investment. Policies that address new construction are also critical because commercial floor space is expected to reach 126.1 billion square feet by 2050 — a 39 percent increase over 2017 levels.

Industrial facilities: The Department of Energy estimates that increased maintenance in small and large industrial facilities would deliver $3 billion in energy savings and reduce pollutant emissions by 37 million metric tons. While federal policy has typically focused on promoting residential and commercial efficiency, future policies should unlock the potential energy savings found in industrial plants.

These policies would do more than save energy; they’d also provide buildings and the people who use them with added protection from severe weather events. Optimizing insulation for an energy-efficient building envelope can extend that protection post-disaster or during prolonged events like heat waves or extreme cold. High-performance buildings aid human comfort and increase survivability in the event of lost electricity, and their mechanical and physical characteristics can maintain the integrity of the overall structure under adverse conditions.

Today, we have the means and knowledge to cost-effectively deliver this protection against tomorrow’s threats and save energy while doing so. It’s estimated that designing buildings to the 2018 I-Codes would deliver a national benefit of $11 for every $1 invested.  

In 2017 alone, there were $317 billion in losses from U.S. natural disasters, jump-starting discussions on creating more resilient buildings and communities. Many of these actions were included in the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018. The law includes major changes to the programs managed primarily by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Here are some proposals for building on that legislation to maximize its impact:

Oversight of DRRA implementation: FEMA will lead the implementation of reforms under DRRA. Congress should ensure that new rules for disaster preparedness and response properly recognize the value of investments in building energy efficiency.

 Support investments in research: The federal government has tremendous research capabilities that have long been leveraged to further the study of building sciences. Congress should support continued funding for building research programs operated by FEMA, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Institute of Building Sciences.

Recognize buildings as infrastructure: Congress should recognize that buildings represent a significant portion of our nation’s infrastructure, including critical structures like hospitals and schools. Moreover, energy-efficient buildings can improve the operability of traditional elements of infrastructure like the electric grid.

Improving the energy efficiency and resilience of our built environment is a proactive approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while boosting economic growth, improving energy security and advancing U.S. global competitiveness.

 

Justin Koscher is president of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association.

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