The AIA 2030 Commitment: A National Priority

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Remember when the drinking age was different in US states? I do. I went to high school in upstate New York in the 70’s where the drinking age was 18. I went away to college in Pennsylvania where the drinking age was 21. I smuggled many a case of beer from my home to my dorm room in the back of a beat-up Ford station wagon.

Folks in Washington DC got wind of such illegal interstate commerce and decided we needed a uniform national drinking age. But this being a “states’ rights” matter, the feds couldn’t order the states to change their laws. So in 1984, they passed the National Minimum Drinking Age act. This bill withheld 10% of scheduled federal highway improvement dollars from every state that allowed people younger than 21 to buy booze. By 1995, the national drinking age was 21.

Now let’s think about the AIA 2030 Commitment and our pledge to get to carbon-neutral architecture by the year 2030. We know what is broadly meant (in this case) by “carbon neutral”: building that are a). radically energy efficient and b). use renewable energy exclusively so that c). the buildings’ annual carbon emissions from operations net out to zero.

I was recently in Copenhagen. The nations of the European Union, having taken the Paris Accords seriously, are thinking beyond carbon-neutral buildings. They’re working to make their entire economies carbon-neutral by 2050. This will obviously require a lot of renewable energy. Today, 53.8% of Sweden’s energy comes from renewable sources. Finland is at 38.7%. Latvia: 37.2%, Austria: 33.5%, Denmark: 32.2%. These countries are on their way.

In the United States, we’re only at 12.2% of primary energy consumption from renewables. For us to get to a carbon-neutral economy, we’d need a whole lot more renewable energy generation than we have now.

Why, may you ask, is renewable energy in the USA lagging way behind those EU nations? The answers are truly myriad . . . but a big reason is that old Constitutional states’ rights thing. Like the drinking age in the mid-70’s, every US state sets its own renewable energy generation laws: its own renewable portfolio standards, its own net metering policies, and its own interconnection standards.

Renewable portfolio standards (RPS) are the regulations that requires utilities in a state to produce a certain amount of power from renewable sources. Twelve US states have no RPS requirements. Eight states have only voluntary RPS targets. Net metering policies allow distributed power generators to sell excess electricity back to the utilities. Twelve US states do not allow net metering. And net metering capacity limits vary widely by state: Wisconsin allows net metering for systems up to 20 kilowatts, New Mexico’ cap is 80 megawatts, Arizona’s system cap is defined in another way: it’s 125% of a customer’s total connected load.
Interconnection standards regulate how any kind of distributed power generators (like photovoltaic arrays or wind turbines) can physically connect to the grid. Seven US states have no interconnection standards. Some states (like Illinois) have adopted IEEE 1547, the model national interconnection standard established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Most states have written their own interconnection standards, but, like Iowa, they typically only apply to investor-owned utilities. Municipal electric utilities are free to make up their own rules. Kansas’ standards only apply to systems with capacities up to 200 kW. Florida classifies “waste heat” as a renewable fuel source.

The ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy) says “lack of a consistent standard that explicitly establishes parameters and procedures for connecting to the grid drives up both monetary and transaction costs for technology manufacturers and owners, discouraging [renewable energy] deployment”.

This is no way to run a country. Those damned regulations are killing our industry! (Where have you heard THAT screed before?)

The fix? Like the national minimum drinking age, we know it can be done. We need our Congress and President to realize that carbon neutrality is too big an issue for the states to solve on their own. If we’re ever going to get to a carbon-neutral economy in the USA, it will take federal leadership. We just need to make it a national priority.

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