10/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Twilight of the Utility Bill?

Alas, it's too soon to begin composing an elegy for the utility bill. Americans will be burdened with houses and offices that cost money to heat, cool, and light for awhile yet -- because they rely on fossil-fuel power and waste it. But the 2030 dream of buildings that are energy self-sufficient and emit zero carbon came a big step closer in the past few weeks.

Building standards for energy efficiency -- which is what drives the size of your utility bill -- are set in a strange, rambunctious, and Byzantine process by a private body called the International Code Council. This year the Sierra Club was part of a coalition seeking to have the Council increase the efficiency standards for buildings by 30 percent. The builders -- who don't, after all, pay your utility bill -- were strongly opposed. The Club used its Cool Cities network to turn out as many advocates for efficiency and lower utility bills as we could.

But it's not as simple as getting your votes to the Council. Here's a description of how it works, from Alex Levinson, who heads up our Energy Solutions campaign:

"The hundreds of votes are by whoever happens to be in the room at the time, and since they start at 7 am and go till midnight or 1 am, the population of voters in the room varies widely. And anyone and everyone can speak for two minutes in favor of a motion, then those opposing the motion all get two minutes, then rebuttal, then re-rebuttal, ad infinitum. And since many of these discussions involve fenestration issues, insulation R-values, or shading fractions, you can bet that the conversation really moves."

The first big battle was between firefighters, who want sprinklers in more buildings, and builders, who don't. (The builder, after all, doesn't have to go into a burning building.) Sprinklers won, and the firefighters and environmentalists advocating efficiency formed an alliance.

But alas, it wasn't quite enough. As Alex tells the story: "The energy code votes were supposed to start at about 2 pm on Sunday, but didn't get going till 7:30. We didn't take up the big 30 Percent Solution package of improvements until 11:30 pm. The homebuilders had 30 folks testifying, every one of which but one was a commercial interest..... Our coalition had a more diverse set of testifiers, including dissident homebuilders; multiple state-energy officials and the national state-energy-officials organization; New Mexico Governor Richardson's representative; reps from mayors' offices; Edison Electric Institute, representing utilities; the fiberglass insulation industry; efficiency experts; environmental justice and low-income housing advocates; and our own Cammy Watkins. We needed a two-thirds vote to pass the 30 Percent Solution. The final vote was taken a bit after one in the morning (that's not a misprint) -- well beyond the time it was reasonable to expect our firefighter allies and other building officials we had lobbied to still be in the room. We carried 64 percent of the vote, losing by a swing of about five votes."

But, the next day, a large part of the 30 Percent Solution package was adopted on individual roll call votes, so future homes and offices will be at least 15 percent more efficient, and perhaps as much as 18 percent -- and our coalition will be back in years to come. The handwriting is on the wall, and Americans are starting to realize they have a good shot of getting (after 2030) new homes and offices that will come without carbon footprints -- or utility bills. The dream is taking shape.

One of the reasons we could make our case was that we had the example of how well California's much stronger energy standards have worked. And the Sierra Club won another critical victory there a few weeks ago. The Club, along with California Attorney General Jerry Brown, is bringing suits to require California cities and counties to make sure that in their plans for more growth they mitigate the additional carbon dioxide emissions. The latest suit was against the City of Stockton, and we have now settled that suit for a breathtaking new precedent -- Stockton has agreed that every new residential and commercial building will be far more efficient than even California's codes require, the equivalent of LEEDS certification.  The City also agreed to make new development transit-friendly. The builders fought this one hard, and they haven't given up -- they are threatening a referendum against the settlement, a threat the Stockton Record has blasted as irresponsible.

So while the reactionary elements that dominate the building industry are still fighting to keep our buildings leaky, expensive, and polluting, the path to the future is pretty clear -- higher performance, lower carbon, and eventually -- no utility bill.