Ken Baker is pretty good at reading his audience. A 30-year veteran educator, energy consultant and the first chairman of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance Conservation Task Force, Baker surveyed a crowded upstairs room at Boise's Owyhee Hotel March 22. The audience--a collection of government officials and representatives from the private sector, including Idaho Power, Hewlett-Packard and URS--were present to hear Baker talk about a decidedly un-sexy-sounding, though vitally important topic: "energy codes," the government standards used by designers and builders to realize energy savings while protecting natural resources.
Baker, who came to the Idaho Environmental Forum equipped with more than a dozen charts and graphs and a half-dozen more public and private research studies, abruptly stopped his PowerPoint presentation and paused for a moment.
"I need to tell you about a phone call I had recently. I called an acquaintance of mine--someone I've known for more than 20 years; and in all that time I always tried to educate him about the importance of energy codes," Baker said. "He has since retired and I called him up to see how he was doing personally, but he couldn't stop talking about energy codes. I asked him why he had a change of heart and he said, 'I must admit that I never fully bought into the concept of energy codes before. But I have a son in the military, and he has served two tours in Iraq and another tour in Afghanistan. And I can't help but think that if we had thought a bit more about energy here, maybe our entry into those conflicts wouldn't have had to happen."
Baker paused again to note that more than a few heads in the room were nodding.
Baker told Boise Weekly that the urgency of energy efficiency crosses political boundaries.
"For example, I've learned by working with Idaho legislators that conservation and conservative values are natural alliances," he said. "In the case of energy codes, everyone pretty much understands that you're doing a disservice to your communities if you don't support these types of programs."
To that end, Baker said he wasn't too surprised to learn that a just-released study from the nonprofit Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance revealed that Idaho is head and shoulders above most U.S. states in compliance with the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code, approved by the 2010 Idaho Legislature and effective in the Gem State since January 2011.
The study found that a statistical sampling indicates new Idaho homes were 90 percent compliant.
"Idaho did extremely well," said David Cohan, senior manager of the Portland-based NEEA. "I think that 90 percent compliance was an unbelievably high mark to set. And there are many states with compliance rates that are around 40, 50 or 60 percent."
The independent study, performed by the Portland-based Cadmus Group and commissioned by NEEA, was triggered by federal requirements tied to nearly $50 million in stimulus funds sent to Idaho as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Simply put, feds told states that they must be at a 90 percent compliance rate with the International Energy Conservation Code by 2017. Using three different methodologies, NEAA found that Idaho's compliance rates were 83, 90 and 109 percent compliance (the 109 percent rate means that, in many instances, the sampling of new Idaho homes exceeded the required standards).
"Idaho showing up at 90 percent or higher was spectacular," said Cohan. "Most states weren't even in the ballpark."
That was sweet music to the ears of Ron Whitney, deputy administrator for the Idaho State Division of Building Safety.
"I'm very glad to hear him say that," Whitney told Boise Weekly.
Whitney knows a thing or two about building homes in Idaho. Prior to his state government job, Whitney spent 38 years in consumer and commercial building design and construction in the Gem State.
"A homebuilder almost always says, 'If a buyer wants it, I'll build it,'" said Whitney. "Sometimes you'll find buyers who are savvy enough to ask for energy conservation measures; sometimes you won't."
Cohan agreed, saying homebuilders are all too anxious to satisfy their customers.
"And sometimes that consumer doesn't want efficiency," said Cohan. "Instead, they want granite countertops."
But Baker was quick to point to a study that indicates a shift in consumer preferences.
"It was just published by the National Association of Homebuilders, a study called What Homebuyers Really Want, and for the first time, what they really want is energy efficiency," said Baker. "You can't deny that. It's not just granite countertops. It's energy efficiency."
According to the study, conducted by NAHB's Economics and Housing Policy Group, "nine out of 10 buyers would rather buy a home with energy-efficient features and permanently lower utility bills than one without."
Cohan stressed, however, that selling energy-efficient upgrades to consumers remains a challenge.
"The problem, and it's a pretty large one for energy-efficient advocates, is that the value of that efficiency isn't totally appreciated or understood in the marketplace," he said. "So, we're working with realtors and appraisers to try to get them to sell efficiency to consumers. When you're raising the price of a home, it's difficult to tell a consumer how great it is to have thicker walls."
Baker said most consumers don't realize that the cost-benefits of investing in tighter insulation, better air circulation and efficient lighting reconcile sooner than later.
"I believe the payback to the homebuyer is phenomenal. It's less than five years," said Baker. "And if you're financing that incremental cost and you roll that into your mortgage, you're putting money back into your pocket from the first month."
Another of Baker's PowerPoint slides on March 22 displayed a fairly simple pie chart, divided into three sections.
"This pie chart never used to change for decades," said Baker. "Very simply, this pie is divided into three equal divisions, showing us the three major users of energy in the United States: the transportation sector, industry and buildings. And it has stayed pretty equal for years, with each taking a third of the pie."
But when Baker changed the slide, the pie chart's divisions had shifted.
"Look at what happened," he said. "The nation's transportation sector now uses about 28 percent of our nation's energy; industry uses about 31 percent, and our buildings are now using 41 percent of our energy. Do you know what this means? This means we can have the biggest impact on the nation's energy consumption by focusing on our buildings."
In addition to his environmental and economic arguments, Baker said his recent experience in upgrading Idaho public schools was, perhaps, the most personal.
"I've been helping the state of Idaho with its K-12 Energy Efficiency Project," he said, referring to the initiative, fueled by $17 million in federal stimulus dollars, along with State Energy Program funds. "We looked at over 800 school buildings across the state. The overall management of the project was huge."
The project resulted in HVAC, mechanical and water-saving retrofits to schools in every corner of Idaho, but Baker said the most tangible change was in lighting upgrades.
"We walked into some Idaho schools where the lighting was literally yellow," he said. "It was very old, high-pressure sodium lighting, the kind you see in parking lots. The lighting was so low that you were afraid the kids were going to get hurt. Well, our contractors put in new lighting into those hallways, classrooms, gymnasiums and those mechanical shops in technical schools. And by the time we walked out of there, the kids had state-of-the-art lighting. And something like that is much more than energy efficiency. It's safety."
Cohan said fewer citizens are pushing back against 21st century energy codes but that doesn't mean they still don't have questions.
"You will rarely find anyone raise their hand anymore and say, 'I hate energy efficiency.' Everybody will say they like it," said Cohan. "But what it still comes down to are questions over costs and timelines."
Baker said he loves to answer all of those questions. But depending on his audience, different answers are important to different people: Sometimes it's the environment; sometimes it's money; and sometimes it's a child's safety. It can even mean a decision to go to war.