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Trump Wants Less Federal Meddling in Home Energy Use, but Some in Congress Want More

President Trump is no fan of federal efficiency standards for light bulbs, dishwashers, and other home appliances, and he routinely bashes these regulations in speeches. Beyond talk, his Department of Energy (DOE) has taken action, for example rejecting additional light bulb rules and pursuing the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s petition to add more flexibility to existing dishwasher standards. But rather than shrink this kind of federal meddling, some in Congress that want to expand it via of the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2019 (S 2137/HR 3692).

These bills target overall home energy use by changing residential building codes. These codes have traditionally been set at the state and local level. Keeping the feds out makes sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that what is cost effective for homes in Florida or Texas may not be in Maine or Montana. Nonetheless, these bills effectively put DOE in charge of setting one-size-fits-all building code provisions for every state and locality. It’s not an explicit mandate but it is enforceable by a number of powerful federal sticks and carrots that effectively make it one. And the federal “suggestions” would likely include very tight energy use limits for all new homes.

At a February 12 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy Subcommittee, proponents of this de facto federal takeover of residential building codes emphasized the climate benefits to be had by reducing home energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, the National Association of Home Builders argued that these standards would likely raise the cost of housing, and do so in a market where affordability is already an issue. Furthermore, it is far from clear whether the extra upfront costs will be earned back by homeowners via energy savings. The new building codes may also dictate home features like the number and size of windows allowed, and do so regardless of consumer preferences.

Rather than mandates, the Home Builders made a convincing pitch for voluntary home efficiency measures. This includes the private National Green Building Standard as well as DOE’s Energy Star program, which identifies ultra-efficient new homes for buyers that prefer them. Overall, they argued that catering to home buyers who want an energy efficient home and are willing to pay for it makes much more sense than nationwide dictates applicable to every new home.

Federal energy efficiency standards have a long history of unintended adverse consequences, from more expensive light bulbs with questionable light quality to dishwashers that take hours to finish a load. Putting the federal government in charge of residential building codes under the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2019 would give us more of the same.