When a rare winter storm disastrously cut off power and clean water for millions of Texans last month, many on the Left correctly explained the debacle as the inevitable outcome of extreme energy neoliberalism. Many postmortems, including some in mainstream media outlets, rightly identified the tragic impacts — outrageous bills, grid isolation, lack of backup power capacity, needless suffering and death — of devolving an essential public service to a largely unregulated cabal of private, profit-seeking companies. There has been plenty of deserved recrimination for the utterly feckless responses to the crisis by bad-faith political actors on the Right, from Flyin’ Ted Cruz and the wind turbine conspiracists to the mayor of Colorado City absurdly blaming everyday citizens for their supposed failure to be prepared.
These criticisms are wholly correct. Like the rest of us, Texas needs more wind turbines, not fewer; more investments and integration with the US grid, not divestment and isolation; full public ownership of the grid and energy suppliers, not more barbaric privatization experiments; and more political strategies to abolish oil and the destructive social order it created, not more subsidies to prop up our crumbling carbon infrastructure.
But as Green New Dealers debate how to most effectively parlay the political openings from the Texas crisis into meaningful policy gains in the Biden administration’s soon-to-be-released climate plan and infrastructure bill, we need to go beyond calls for scaling up investments in renewables and democratizing the grid. As we strategize for how to win these changes and curtail the power of fossil-fuel capitalists, we shouldn’t overlook an integral tool in the social and political transformation of energy: using less of it, especially in the buildings where we live and work.
Compared to utility-scale solar installations and wind farms (to say nothing of Tesla’s Model S), energy efficiency and conservation strategies are mundane and hardly new. Retrofitting buildings with insulation, air-sealed doors, and triple-glazed windows will never be flashy, and only garnered one line in the original Green New Deal resolution.
The very terms “efficiency” and “conservation” evoke specters of technocratic managerialism, market-obsessed business-speak, even austerity. “Efficiency” is often the watchword pedaled by those who believe that price signals and nudges, such as carbon taxes, ought to be the primary rudder by which we steer the suicidal ship of petro-capitalism towards a bright, green future. Ideologies of personal responsibility and individual action have for decades trafficked in neoliberal, moralistic conservation messaging. Such versions of efficiency have no place in the fight for a habitable planet.
But a well-designed, adequately resourced, and strategically implemented national energy efficiency and conservation program for our nation’s buildings could not only make significant contributions to the Green New Deal’s ambitious emissions-reduction targets but also bring lasting material improvements to the lives of ordinary working people — the very people we need to enlist in the climate fights ahead.
Energy Efficiency as Disaster Mitigation
From a risk reduction perspective, a more energy-efficient building stock might have avoided some of the blackouts and ensuing hardships seen in Texas. Well-insulated buildings act as buffers against extreme hot and cold temperatures, which can help to flatten the steep spikes in demand for energy that contributed, in part, to the blackouts. With an entirely retrofitted building stock using — say, 25 to 30 percent — less energy overall, Texas would have had the backup power generation capacity needed to compensate for failing power plants. Those redundancies didn’t exist because redundancies, by definition, erode utilities’ profits.
In a future filled with more temperature anomalies like heat waves and cold snaps, energy conservation — and better-insulated buildings, in particular — are essential for preventing needless suffering and death.
Beyond Texas and the many Texas-like disasters in our future, a fairly strong consensus has emerged that decarbonizing fast enough to avert the much larger global disasters fueled by exceeding 1.5°C of warming cannot be achieved with rapid deployment of renewables alone. Aside from Silicon Valley billionaires’ techno-chauvinist fantasies, most credible decarbonization plans include efficiency and conservation as a core plank, even if renewables and technologies for carbon removal get most of the headlines and dominate conversations. We need much more of all of the above. But with US per capita energy use currently twice as high as those in the hardly austere countries of Japan, Denmark, and Switzerland, efficiency and conservation offer a critical opportunity to lower the threshold of decarbonization, and do not have to portend lifestyles of misery.
But whether we achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 primarily through renewables, conservation, or carbon removal, a ton of reduced carbon dioxide is a ton of reduced carbon dioxide. When it comes to decarbonization, the Earth’s atmosphere is more or less agnostic on how we get there. Working people, however, are not.
Energy Efficiency as Good Politics
As many have pointed out, winning the Green New Deal will require mobilizing a new and durable political coalition largely along class lines. Key to assembling this coalition is fighting for and implementing policies and programs that simultaneously achieve climate progress while delivering tangible and meaningful material benefits to the coalition’s constituencies. Small and strategic early wins, many argue, can virtuously build the power needed for bigger fights later. It’s why policies that build working people’s collective power, such as the PRO Act, are so vital right now.
Housing is very much central to this people-and-climate project, and we desperately need an ambitious plan for new affordable, no-carbon public housing, as well as Bernie Sanders’s and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal for Public Housing bill, which would invest $180 billion in energy-efficiency retrofits of the nation’s public housing stock over ten years. But even though the latter likely won’t see a floor vote in its current form, its core policies and politics are worth resurrecting and expanding as the White House and Congress consider next steps on climate policy and infrastructure spending, respectively.
A well-resourced national energy efficiency and conservation plan for our nation’s buildings that takes the best of the Sanders-AOC bill and expands it to all residential and commercial buildings — renters included — could make solid climate gains while laying some critical political groundwork among the broad constituencies who would benefit.
The climate case for such a program is obvious: buildings contribute about 40 percent of the United States’ overall greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from lighting, appliance use, and space heating and cooling. Retrofitting buildings with better-insulated building envelopes, and replacing inefficient oil and gas furnaces and air conditioners with alternatives like air-source heat pumps, are relatively cost-effective, high-impact ways to make immediate and lasting emissions reductions. So are federal “cash for appliances” programs that help households swap out energy-hungry fridges and air conditioning units for more efficient models.
Deep retrofits that approach or meet “passive house” performance standards can decrease total energy use by an astonishing 90 percent compared to conventional construction. Although passive houses in the United States largely occupy a niche market for the wealthy, a well-funded and open-source research and development addition to any public retrofit program could bring the best of this design approach into the public domain — a sort of “passive retrofit for the people.”
Compared to the climate case, the politics of a national energy efficiency and conservation program for buildings may not be as immediately obvious, but are just as compelling. Unbearably hot summer nights and bitterly cold winters in poorly insulated buildings are a surprisingly widespread experience, both within and beyond public housing, especially for households facing utility shutoffs due to an inability to pay. Poorly insulated and ventilated buildings are petri dishes for mold and poor indoor air quality.
Altogether, energy insecurity — a euphemistically clinical term for people whose economic precarity compels them to barbarically decide in any given month whether eating and paying rent is more urgent than having heat or literally keeping the lights on — afflicts millions of working households and directly contributes to their poor physical and mental health outcomes.
Even beyond the energy insecure, a national energy efficiency and conservation program could provide a lasting economic lifeline to the millions of energy-burdened households that spend disproportionate shares of their income on energy. Half of low- and moderate-income households in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, for example, spend at least 10 percent their annual income on energy costs, with one fourth spending upwards of 18 percent. These burdens are especially concentrated in rural areas with cold winters, where fossil fuels constitute the primary heating source.
Whether renters pay for these utilities directly themselves or as part of rent, energy costs amplify the already crushing effects of those who are rent- or mortgage-burdened. A well-designed program — whether financed through grants, no-interest loans, or subsidized cost-share — would have to ensure that financial savings produced by conservation upgrades would get passed through to renters and not just get pocketed by landlords.
But this problem of the so-called split incentive should not prevent ambitious experimentation with a conservation program that could, in effect, provide a lasting cash safety net in the form of reduced energy bills, which in turn could help undo some of the political and material harm caused by economically regressive climate policies.
Finally, such a program could make substantive progress on phasing out one piece of the government’s fossil fuel subsidies. Each year, the federal Department of Health and Human Services provides over $3.5 billion in cash assistance, via state and tribal block grants, to help low-income residents with their energy bills. While state and tribal governments can use up to 15 percent of this funding for efficiency and conservation, the vast majority passes straight through to energy suppliers.
From a climate perspective, these energy subsidies are little more than a generous, if hidden, giveaway to fossil-fuel companies. Cutting these emergency subsidies without compensatory action would be obviously cruel. In Maine, where I live, this is a lifesaving measure for households in both rural communities and urban neighborhoods whose old housing stock provides paltry shelter from our frigid winters. Deep retrofits to homes, however, could notch a climate win without doing so on the backs of working people.
Just as the Joe Bidens of the world tarred federal student loan debt forgiveness as a giveaway to Ivy League–credentialed professionals, so too will critics of a universal building retrofit program chafe against the idea that the government should subsidize the private property of slumlords and wealthy suburbanites. But if those of us on the Left find it objectionable to deny relief to debt-ridden dropouts of predatory for-profit colleges in the name of sticking it to Harvard lawyers, we should be equally wary of denying home comfort and an affordable heating bill to the masses just so penthouse-dwelling elites living in New York’s energy-hungry pencil towers continue to pay full price for their planet-destroying luxury.
We can and should ensure that any universal energy efficiency program is implemented in a way to ensure that low-income homeowners and renters, especially those in multifamily properties, benefit disproportionately. But means-testing our way to a low-carbon future is not only a surefire way to neuter the kind of political support needed to win the Green New Deal’s more difficult policy fights; it’s also a bizarre way to accomplish the kind of progressive, redistributive taxation that lies at the heart of any socialist vision.
While it’s hard to make a catchy slogan about using less of anything, the importance of a national energy efficiency and conservation plan for the climate task in front of us can’t be overstated. The science is clear on this. Progressive architects get it. It’s first on the list for organized labor’s jobs-and-climate plans. Hell, it’s even something Joe Manchin can get behind. Deep weatherization and retrofits won’t get us all the way there, and they’re no substitute for ambitious plans for new no-carbon social housing, a publicly owned grid, and massive investments in our social infrastructure. But it’s a practical way to bring the Green New Deal into the homes of millions and, in the process, seed the foundation for the political coalition we’ll need in the fights ahead.