Friday, February 01, 2008

State urged to set rules for new-home energy efficiency

Portland Press Herald

State House: Advocates say Maine is way behind on standards that would save owners cash and cut pollution.

February 1, 2008

Maine is the only New England state without mandatory
energy-efficiency standards for new homes, but that may
change soon as lawmakers take up two proposals aimed at
reducing the financial and environmental costs of heating

One proposal was introduced Thursday in a report from
several state agencies calling for the adoption of Maine's first
statewide uniform building code together with energy-efficiency

The other is a bill that would establish minimum standards
for insulation, energy-saving windows and other things, and
provide tax incentives for new homes that are built to save even
more energy. Environmentalists, and at least some home
builders, are backing the effort.

"We have a lot of builders out there who are still using
insulation products that are substandard for the kind of homes
we want to build today," said Ashley Richards, owner of
construction and insulation businesses in Westbrook and vice
president of the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of

Energy-efficient homes can save fuel and money the same
way energy-efficient cars do, he said.

"If you use a better product and install it properly, you will
actually be putting money in your pocket," Richards said. "The
rest of the country is 20 years ahead of Maine."

Conservationists say the code would save homeowners
money and reduce global warming pollution that is generated by
burning oil, the heating fuel of choice in eight out of 10 Maine

"We believe that people deserve to know that their home
meets some minimum standard," said Dylan Voorhees of the
Natural Resources Council of Maine.

With heating oil prices at near-record highs, advocates say
the idea's time may finally have arrived. It has been proposed in
past sessions, but "there just wasn't the momentum and
attention to the issue," Voorhees said.

It's unclear whether the idea will face any opposition this

The Maine Municipal Association has objected to past
efforts because of the cost and enforcement burden it could
place on small towns. Most Maine towns have no building codes
and no code enforcement officers.

A lobbyist for the association could not be reached for an
interview Thursday.

The bill submitted to the Legislature this week would set up
a system to train and register private inspectors. In towns with
no code enforcement officers, builders could hire the private
inspectors to certify that new homes meet the standards.

Because there are no inspections now, it's unknown how
many homes are built in Maine that do not meet the

"In southern Maine, probably very few developers are
building them that would not be up to code, but it can happen,"
said Sen. Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, sponsor of the bill. "We've
certainly heard anecdotally that some (builders) are."

The proposed standards are considered minimal and are not
expected to make homes less affordable to buy. And, supporters
say, they are sure to make some homes more affordable to live

"Sometimes it can be done less expensively and the savings
easily make up for any increased mortgage payment," Bartlett
said. "This is not a high-end standard."

Agencies that build affordable homes in Maine, including
the Maine State Housing Authority and nonprofits, have made
energy-efficient construction a major goal because it lowers
housing costs over time.

Clearwater Bend, an affordable-apartment complex that's
under construction in Westbrook, is an example of housing
that's already far more energy-efficient than would be required
under the proposed standards, according to the builders.

Bartlett's bill includes a state tax incentive for homes that
go beyond the proposed standards and meet more stringent
federal Energy Star efficiency guidelines.

There already is a federal tax credit, but such homes are
rarely built in Maine, compared with New Hampshire and others
states, according to advocates.

No hearing has been scheduled yet on Bartlett's bill.

The proposal introduced Thursday is the product of a joint
study by the State Planning Office and other state agencies, and
is expected to become the basis of a separate bill.

The proposal, which also includes a broader set of
construction standards, does not include tax incentives for
energy efficiency or third-party inspectors. It would impose
energy-efficiency standards only on towns with at least 2,000
residents - those that already are required to have code
enforcement officers.

The proposal does call for a state program to train local
inspectors to enforce the standards. The program would cost
more than $200,000 a year.

Any proposal that requires money through the state's
General Fund is sure to be a tough sell this year. In this case, the
money for training can be generated through fees or other
revenue rather than from taxpayers, said Sue Inches, deputy
commissioner of the State Planning Office.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324
or at:

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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