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Only in Berkeley • December 29, 2014

Berkeley property owners to pony up for energy audits

December 4, 2014 1:30 pm by Emilie Raguso

The Ed Roberts Campus is a high efficiency building already, thus likely to be exempt from the new laws, said city staff. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Later this month, the Berkeley City Council is slated to approve a new law — designed to increase building sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions — that will mandate new fees and recurring energy assessments for local property owners.

The law would require payment of a $79-$240 filing fee, depending on building size, by property owners every 5-10 years. On top of that, property owners will be required to undergo building energy assessments on the same cycle, conducted by registered contractors, to the tune of an estimated $200 for a single-family home and up to $10,000 for large commercial buildings.

The goal of the new law, according to the city, is to make “building energy use information more transparent to owners and prospective renters or buyers,” and ultimately inspire more investment in energy upgrades. The law would replace existing minimum energy and water efficiency measures in Berkeley. The proposed ordinance would not require that upgrades are actually done, but will compile energy scores and summaries for city properties, and make them readily available online.

Explained city sustainability coordinator Billi Romain, “Rather than require a list of specific measures, it requires an evaluation of a building’s efficiency opportunities and identifies all available incentives and financing programs.”

Romain said the hope is that, by giving people a “road map” for potential improvements, they will be more likely to schedule them to fit in with other home projects, such as seismic work. In addition to cutting down on local greenhouse gas emissions, the new ordinance has several other goals, from reducing utility costs that cause local dollars to “leak out” of Berkeley, to creating a more comfortable, durable building stock, as well as fortifying the local “green” workforce.

“We wanted to make it bigger than just saving energy,” said Romain. “It’s about making homes more resilient, too.”

The Building Energy Saving Ordinance has been in the works since September 2013 when council asked staff to look into ways to update the city’s building sustainability requirements. Since then, the Berkeley Energy Commission has held three public workshops to collect input, and groups like the city’s Housing Advisory Commission and Rent Board have weighed in. Still, many local residents have said recently on various email lists and neighborhood social networks that they are just learning about the plans now, and that the city has not done enough to inform local property owners or get their feedback.

According to a city Energy Commission report on the ordinance, the assessments would take place on a five-year cycle for large buildings and every 8-10 years, or upon sale, for medium-sized and small buildings. Some of the costs may be offset by rebates and other incentives, and the program is set to include temporary “hardship deferrals” for those with financial constraints, and exemptions for high-efficiency buildings (see page 14).

According to the city, “The assessment will provide building owners with… recommendations packaged with rebates and incentives, with consideration given to existing and planned capital improvements. The assessment will include a cost/benefit analysis of measures and will identify health, comfort, and safety benefits of recommended upgrades.”

As one incentive, for example, council says one-third of the property transfer tax, up to $3,000, could be used for home improvements. Romain said, as it stands now, there are so many options available for different types of incentives and financing programs that property owners get confused and opt not to take action.

The city hopes the assessment will help people identify sustainability-related solutions more easily, and Romain said that will likely prompt at least some people to make changes. Several years ago, the city offered rebates to local property owners who wanted energy assessments; 79% of them went on to do the recommended upgrades. She acknowledged that the rebate program participants were a self-selected bunch, and were perhaps more prepared to invest. But she said, even if a relatively low percentage jumps in, the city could see major reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, particularly if those who own the lowest-performing structures can be persuaded to engage.

“If we could do 35% of all the buildings in Berkeley, and get 20-30% reductions, we would meet our climate action goals,” said Romain. “This isn’t going to be a hammer kind of approach. We really want to direct people to the resources available to them, and use more education and encouragement to help people get connected.”

The proposed law is a critical component of Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan. The plan was created by the city in 2006 and sets a target of a 33% reduction in emissions by 2020, followed by an 80% reduction by 2050.


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