Monday, March 03, 2008

Energy codes hotly debated

Kennebec Journal
March 2, 2008

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Homebuilders in Maine may face new regulations as a result of bills pending before the Legislature, with one measure focusing on making new homes more energy efficient.

Some builders and environmental groups agree that an energy code is needed to help Mainers save money on oil bills and reduce global warming. Exactly how -- or if -- that will be accomplished will be decided in the coming weeks.

There are two major proposals facing lawmakers regarding building codes, with the State Planning Office scheduled to propose a statewide building code sometime in March. The other is a bill sponsored by Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, that focuses on energy efficiency.

Described by supporters as the "bare minimum," the code would require proper insulation of cellar walls and attics. A recent survey completed by the Maine Public Utilities Commission found 84 percent of new homes built in the state did not meet minimum energy standards.

"That means a lot of new homeowners are paying a lot more for energy than they need to be," said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The bill also provides a tax credit for homes that qualify for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star rating.

The natural resources council has identified the bill as one of the most important environmental measures before legislators this year. But it may be folded into a larger bill that seeks to put in place a statewide building code, an effort that has failed several times in recent years.

As it is now, the state has in place a model building code that cities and towns may adopt, but they are not required to do so.

Sue Inches, deputy director of the State Planning Office, said 70-80 towns have adopted a building code and fewer than 10 have an energy code.

"The result is what people call a 'patchwork quilt' of codes across the state, with some towns working from older or locally amended versions of the codes, and other towns having no codes at all," she said last week in testimony before the Legislature's Business, Research and Economic Development Committee.

When it comes to energy codes, Maine is one of 10 states in the country, and the only one in the Northeast, that does not have a statewide residential energy code, according to NRCM.

"Buildings are an enormous source of CO2 emissions in Maine and the region," Voorhees said.

CO2, or carbon dioxide, has been identified as one of the leading causes of global warming. And while environmental groups like it, the bill also has the support of the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of Maine.

Ashley Richards, vice president of the group, said as a builder and insulator, he knows firsthand that people can save money if they have their insulation properly installed.

Richards said that could save the owner of a 2,000-square-foot home $1,200 a year in oil costs.

"It's not because builders are sloppy," he said. "It's just because they don't know."

Yet at least two groups -- the Maine Association of Realtors and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine -- said they cannot support the bill because they prefer to wait to see what comes from the State Planning Office in the coming weeks.

The Realtors support energy standards, said lobbyist Linda Gifford, but the bill goes too far in other areas.

She said it's not a good time for state government to be creating another layer of bureaucracy, especially a new group of "energy code inspectors" who would review plans, issue certificates and inspect properties.

She said proposed new disclosure requirements would be complicated for home buyers and sellers. Existing documents show buyers how much oil is used per year, and the type and age of heating system in use, she said.

Also, she said the market is driving builders to use better standards.

"Any builder worth anything is building to energy efficient standards now," she said.

Kathleen Newman, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, said they too want to see what the State Planning Office proposes in the coming weeks.

The energy code bill, while a good idea, "is so top down," she said.

Bartlett, the bill sponsor, said at a time when Maine homeowners are paying $500 to $600 a month in oil bills, making sure builders insulate right the first time is an easy way to help save money.

Not to mention reduce the state's dependence on foreign oil.

"This is not the first time this bill has come forward, but because prices are soaring out of control, we're seeing a renewed interest," he said.

Susan Cover -- 623-1056

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