The AIA 2030 Commitment: Why Advocacy?

Wonk: a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field; broadly: NERD <a policy wonk> <a computer wonk>

I was walking to my office with an attorney the other day, telling him about the proposed net metering caps in energy legislation that was about to be released from conference committee before the Massachusetts General Assembly recessed for the summer. My attorney-friend stopped me in mid-sentence: “You really ARE a wonk, aren’t you?”

When we drafted our Sustainability Action Plan at Bergmeyer as part of year-one compliance with the AIA 2030 Commitment, we began with a topic outline. Sitting around a conference table, we threw out a list of goals for the firm. Design process goals. Staff engagement and education goals. Reporting and accountability goals. Sustainable operations goals. Check.

And advocacy goals, too. In our plan, we said Bergmeyer would “contribute to industry-wide achievement of Architecture 2030 goals by advocating for the adoption of equitable and effective public policy, building regulation, and incentives.”

Why should we do this? Are we all wonks? We don’t get paid for it. Why advocacy?

Because sustainability is not just about buildings. It’s about achieving an equitable, perpetuating balance between social, economic, and environmental needs.  It’s a goal for an entire society. And we can’t get to true societal sustainability one building at a time. Yes, we need to be able to design and build “carbon-neutral” buildings, but we also need to improve the systems that connect and regulate buildings. To do this, we sometimes need to get outside our building envelopes and property lines and redesign the rules.  

Imagine the glistening, perfect net zero energy building that we all strive to design. You know the equation: Crank the building energy efficiency way down to 60 or 70% better than code, then generate enough green power on-site so that over a given period of time, the building produces as much power as it needs.

In the future of our dreams, all buildings will be net zero. We’ve committed to get there by 2030, right? But the regulatory environment needs to change before this net-zero future can happen.

The green power on that glistening NZEB probably comes from a photovoltaic array. The PVs are probably “grid-connected”, allowing an inverter to transform DC current to AC and sell electricity (at times) back to the utility. But anyone who has designed or built one of these systems knows that this is by no means a simple transaction. Every state in the US has “net metering” laws that limit the total amount of power that utilities are required to buy back. “Interconnection standards” also regulate the design and capacity of these arrays, and other laws limit the maximum size of distributed generation facilities. In virtually every US state, the widespread proliferation (“mainstreaming”) of grid-connected building-integrated photovoltaics is significantly restricted by these existing laws.

In Massachusetts, we’re doing well. Our state regulations are among the most progressive in the country. But see for yourself. One website, Freeing the Grid 2012, catalogs the good, bad and ugly of net metering and interconnection on a state-by-state basis. Another advocacy group, The Vote Solar Initiative, has produced a whole page full of policy guidelines. And all architects should know about the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE.org), a sweet compendium of information on state, local, utility and federal incentives and policies. Get the scoop on your state’s regulations right here!

Back to that policy-wonk conversation with my attorney-friend, our state legislature did just approve a new stack of laws that would raise the statewide net metering cap, increase the maximum system size, and bump up the renewable energy “portfolio standards” for power providers. These new regs would even allow small systems (under 10kw) to net meter regardless of the statewide cap. Nice.

This is good news. These laws will be a boost to sustainable building. But across the country, these standards need to continue to change to keep pace with architecture and – even in Massachusetts – to change drastically if we’re to get to our 2030 Commitment goals. Our state lawmakers will need to hear it from us.

So that’s the case. Advocacy needs to be part of your AIA 2030 plan. Grab a microphone and make some change happen.

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