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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 08:45 am

We must do better

Illinois lags behind other states in promoting energy efficiency

Untitled Document As our economy sputters, utility bills soar, the number of home foreclosures skyrockets, and pollution builds, wouldn’t it be great to have a solution that addressed all these problems at once, one that didn’t require higher taxes or a greater burden on Illinois’s stretched budget? Although it may not sound sexy, increased energy efficiency is that solution. By simply making better use of energy we already generate, Illinois families can save hundreds annually in utility bills, lower the monthly costs of home ownership, and help curb the harmful effects of pollution from Illinois power plants. The benefits are remarkable. According to the recent Environment Illinois report The Power of Efficiency: Opportunities to Save Money, Reduce Pollution, and Expand the Economy in the Midwest, simply requiring new residential furnaces to be 20 percent more efficient in Illinois would, by 2020, save 1,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity and 14 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually — enough to supply more than 100,000 homes. A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy found that new Illinois homes built under the latest national energy-efficiency model code save homeowners as much as $466 annually in utility bills over current practice. The economic benefits continue to grow as demand declines and saving energy leads to lower energy prices. For example, if Midwestern states reduced their consumption of natural gas by 1 percent per year for five years through increased energy efficiency, wholesale natural gas prices would decline by as much as 13 percent. Lower utility bills mean more disposable income for Illinois families, providing an economic stimulus that doesn’t submarine our state or federal budgets. That’s also a relief to homeowners struggling to meet the monthly costs of owning a new home (remember, foreclosures occur because families can’t make monthly payments, not down payments). Increased energy efficiency decreases the strain on Illinois power plants, helping curb the soot, mercury, smog, and global-warming pollution created when coal is burned for fuel. Researchers at the University of Illinois predict that reducing forecast electricity consumption by 16 percent in Illinois by 2020 would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 33 million tons per year in 2020. That’s progress. Unfortunately, Illinois lags behind other states in getting the most out of the energy we already produce. Illinois is one of just a handful of states without statewide energy-efficient residential building codes, meaning that many new homes waste energy, resulting in excessive utility bills for homeowners. As a result, whereas 57 percent of new Iowa homes constructed in 2006 are built to Energy Star specifications (15 percent above the model code), that rate is an embarrassing 3 percent in Illinois. We must do better. Legislation before the Illinois General Assembly would make it easier for Illinois families to build and maintain energy-efficient homes. This bill — the Energy Efficient Building Act (HB 1842) — adopts the latest International Energy Conservation Code residential standards for new-home construction. Supported by financial institutions (ShoreBank), affordable-housing groups (Housing Action Illinois, Illinois Housing Council), environmental groups (the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Environment Illinois), and the city of Chicago, this legislation may not solve global warming or cure our economic struggles altogether, but it is an important first step. Beyond legislative solutions, Illinois families and businesses can take steps on their own. If every Illinois household replaced five conventional bulbs with compact fluorescent lights, the annual global-warming pollution prevented would be equivalent to that prevented by removing 110,000 cars from the road. According to Harvard researchers, simply retrofitting existing homes with improved insulation would reduce pollution sufficiently to prevent 240 premature deaths and 6,500 asthma attacks across the United States. The resulting national health-care savings alone could total $1.3 billion per year — yet another way in which increased energy efficiency benefits our economy. Clean energy and renewable energy are indispensable components of any new energy future, and we must continue to expand their development. But significant opportunities also exist to maximize the potential of energy we already create. For the sake of our environment and our economy, we cannot keep letting these opportunities slip away.
Brian P. Granahan is a staff attorney with Environment Illinois; Mattie Hunter is Democratic member of the Illinois Senate.
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