Fiscal Cliff Bill Extends Home Energy Efficiency Tax Credits for Businesses and Homeowners

     On January 1, 2013, the U.S. Congress passed last minute legislation known as the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 to avoid automatic increases in income taxes for millions of Americans, as well as draconian cuts to the budget of the federal government, that many feared would plunge the nation’s economy back into recession. 

        Also included in this eleventh-hour legislative compromise were reinstatements of two business and personal tax credits applicable to energy efficient residences and appliances that had expired on December 31, 2011. The Act extended the tax credits through December 31, 2013, and made them retroactive to December 31, 2011, meaning that the credits are now available for both 2012 and 2013 projects


26 U.S.C. §45L Business Tax Credit for New and Renovated Energy Efficient Residences


            The Act reinstated and extended the 26 U.S.C. §45L business tax credit of up to $2000 for contractors or developers that construct or significantly renovate “dwelling units” (apartments, condos or single-family homes) that meet certain energy efficiency standards.


Importantly, the credit is calculated based on the “dwelling unit,” not the building. IRS guidance on the credit defines “dwelling unit” as “a single unit providing complete independent living facilities for one or more persons, including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation, within a building that is not more than three stories above grade in height.” Therefore, contractors and developers of low-rise multi-family properties can claim a credit for each individual unit, and attached townhomes each qualify for an independent credit.


            In addition, the credit had previously applied only to residences acquired before December 31, 2011. The credit is now available for homes built and acquired from December 31, 2011 through December 31, 2013, which includes those built and acquired either in 2012 or 2013.


            In addition to extending the credit, the Act changed the baseline of energy efficiency required to qualify. Previously, §45L required a 50% reduction in energy usage as compared to the 2003 edition of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). The Act amended the baseline energy standard to reference the 2006 edition. 


            The 2006 edition of the IECC contains several structural changes to make the code easier to apply, and adjusted some of the technical requirements. However, as determined by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the revisions did not change significantly the level of energy efficiency from the 2003 edition.  Therefore, although it is important to be aware of the technical changes, properties that would have qualified for the prior version of the §45L credit will likely meet the energy efficiency requirements of the new standard.  This will disappoint many critics of the §45L tax credit, who have argued that it is not stringent enough from an energy efficiency perspective.


            The Act also freezes the credit to the standard “in effect on January 1, 2006,” the 2006 edition of the IECC. Updating the baseline energy efficiency standard to more current editions of the IECC, which are up to 30% more energy efficient than the 2006 edition, will require further legislative amendment, and is therefore unlikely to occur in the near future.


26 U.S.C. §25C Individual Tax Credit for Energy Efficient Residential Improvements and Appliances


            The Act also reinstated the 26 U.S.C. §25C individual tax credit of 10% (up to $500) of the cost of certain energy efficient existing property improvements, like insulation, windows and door, and energy efficient heating, cooling and water heating appliances. 


            As with the §45L credit, the §25C credit, the Act extended the availability of the credit to improvements placed in service between December 31, 2011 and December 31, 2013, meaning that improvements placed in service in either 2012 and 2013 are now eligible.

Time to Pay the Piper: Evergreen Solar Must Repay (Some) Tax Incentives

I have posted previously about the Destiny USA debacle, wherein the IRS is auditing a "green" shopping center project that failed to meet its sustainability obligations that qualified it for tax exempt bonds.

Now, according to the Boston Globe, a solar manufacturing plant in Massachusetts that received $4.5 million in property tax abatements will have to pay back a portion of the money. 

Yesterday, the Economic Assistance Coordinating Council, the state board charged with overseeing the tax breaks, unanimously voted to cut short Evergreen’s 20-year property tax break, originally estimated to be worth $15 million, and voided another $7.5 million in state tax credits after the company eliminated the hundreds of jobs it promised to create and retain in Devens.

Out of the $4.5 million in property tax breaks they have received to date, Evergreen will only have to repay the current year's value, about $1.5 million, and in addition to the property tax breaks, the now almost defunct solar manufacturer also received over $21 million in other grants, the fate of which is uncertain. 

A question which occurs to me is why didn't the government pull the plug sooner? At this point, it may be all but impossible to recoup the public investment.  To the extent that the public is taking a position in green companies (or any companies, for that matter), someone should be watching to guard the public's investment.  As early as 2009, the writing was on the wall for Evergreen. According to their 2009 Annual Report:

We cannot assure you that our business will generate sufficient cash flows from operations, or that future borrowings will be available to us in amounts sufficient and on terms reasonable to us to support our liquidity needs. If we are not able to generate sufficient cash flow to service our debt obligations, we may need to refinance or restructure our debt, including our senior convertible notes, sell assets, reduce or delay capital investments, or seek to raise additional capital. We may incur additional indebtedness. If we do so, our increased debt service requirements may adversely affect our ability to meet our payment obligations on our currently outstanding senior convertible notes and otherwise successfully grow and operate our business.

Moreover, Massachusetts rescinded Evergreen's property tax breaks for failure to create jobs, not failure to achieve environmental goals. The state should have known about this situation well before mid-2011. As early as 2009, Evergreen announced it was moving its manufacturing operations to China. According to its 2009 Annual Report:

In addition to our direct expansion into China, we also announced plans to begin shifting panel fabrication from our Devens facility to China using wafers and cells produced at the Devens facility.

[As a side note, Destiny USA had both obligations--to create 1000 construction and 1500 permanent jobs, as well as install its green features.  The IRS may follow suit and rescind the tax exempt status of the Destiny bonds for jobs reasons, thus avoiding the controversy over whether the green aspects were met]

According to the company's website, Vanguard Group, Inc., BlackRock Institutional Trust Company,  and Brigade Capital Management, LLC are the top holders of Evergreen stock. To the extent that Evergreen issued tax exempt paper, it will be interesting to see if these entities enter the fray if the tax exempt status of their investments is rescinded. 

Moreover, if Evergreen declares bankruptcy, it will be fascinating to watch whether the public agencies which granted the incentives will be able to recoup any of their investment, particularly where they are competing with private creditors.  

Taken For A Ride On The Carousel: Failed Green Project Sets Stage For Suits

The foundation for a rash of legal actions arising out of a failed green project have been laid. 

According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, the Carousel Center shopping mall was supposed to be a showcase of green features. To fund the project, the Carousel Center developers secured:

$228 million in federally authorized, tax-exempt “green bonds” to help finance the first phase of Congel’s expansion of the mall into an entertainment and tourism center to be called Destiny USA.

Unfortunately, six years later, those green features are no where to be found:

There is no 45-megawatt electricity generating plant running on “biofuel” made from soybean oil and recycled cooking grease. If there were, it would be the largest such plant in the nation and consume more than one-third of the total U.S. biodiesel supply.

Nor are there 290,000 square feet of solar panels on the mall’s roofs and other surfaces, enough to blanket six football fields.

The fuel cells that were to make 7 megawatts of electricity, five times more than the nation’s largest existing commercial fuel-cell installation? Nowhere to be seen.

The construction landscape is littered with the bodies of failed projects, grandly envisioned in 2005 and all but abandoned in 2011.  The question--What becomes of the tax exempt status of the bonds? 

Loss of the tax exemption would require Congel to pay higher interest rates on the bonds to compensate investors, who would suddenly be required to pay income taxes on the interest they earned. The increased cost would depend on the interest rate spread between taxable and tax-exempt bonds at the time of the IRS ruling. In 2005, a Destiny USA executive estimated the tax exemption would save the developer about $120 million over the 30-year term of the bonds.

If the IRS chooses to rescind the tax exempt status of the bonds, there could be a flood of legal fallout.  A few possibilities: 

  1. Investors, particularly institutional investors, now forced to pay taxes on their previously exempt bonds could sue Congel. 
  2. Government entities, like the Syracuse Industrial Development Authority, could pursue Congel. Although the SIDA did not put up any money outright, it gave the project a 30 year tax abatement, presumably on the premise that completion of the project would bring economic development.  If the project would not have gone forward without the $228 million in green bonds, SIDA might have grounds for seeking its property taxes.
  3. Citibank and Congel entered into a settlement under which Citibank agreed to disburse the remainder of the $$155 million construction loan on the project.  If the project is devalued by the impact of the tax issue, Congel may be in breach of whatever settlement he came to with Citibank.
  4. According to the Post-Standard, the developer’s attorneys now say the promised conservation and technology goals will not be achieved with the current expansion and may never be achieved, even if future phases of Destiny are built. if the Federal government can prove that Congel fraudulently represented that the project would have the green features, this may be additional grounds for a suit.

However, Congel almost certainly protected himself and his development company behind a single purpose entity to develop the Carousel Center.  If, at the end of the day, the only asset the single purpose entity has is the partially completed Carousel/Destiny USA Center, investors, the government and the people of Syracuse may have been taken for a ride.


Part 3 Of Green Finance--Bumming Money From Your Uncle (Sam)

In Part 3 of GBLB's green finance series (find Part 1 on Top 10 Rules of Green Finance here and Part 2 on Alternative Green Financing Mechanisms here), I will address government incentives and other programs.  I will also highlight some factors that may make green incentives go from rare bird to endangered species. 

As always,  I am not a finance professional, and the goal of these posts is simply to give a high-level overview of government incentives.  As with all financial decisions, please consult your financial professional and attorney for advice specific to your project. 

The Good News About Government Incentives

  1. Programs are available at almost all levels of government--The Federal government offers grants, tax breaks, loan guarantees and technical assistance for green building and renewable energy components of commercial, residential and industrial projects.  The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has a pretty user friendly site. States also run incentive programs, and many states have renewable energy credit trading programs (also known as RECs or green tags or SRECs, etc.) which enable producers of renewable energy to get an extra stream of income from their property. For special groups, like Native American Tribes and Veterans, additional resources are available.
  2. Some programs come from unusual sources--Not all green building and renewable energy incentives come from government.  Utilities sponsor a lot of programs for both commerical and residential projects (for example, see the programs available from PECO here).  Some non profits and even faith-based organizations are providing green incentives.  A loyal Twitter follower highlighted this program by the Jewish Free Loan Association (available to those of any faith) that provides interest free loans of up to $5000 for energy efficient upgrades for homes and small businesses in the Los Angeles area.
  3. Don't neglect technical assistance programs-- One of the most underutilized incentive is technical assistance. Of course, homeowners and businesses can access technical assistance programs, but also municipalities, small businesses  and Native American Tribes can get thousands of dollars in technical assistance for free or reduced cost.  For example, in New York Con Edison provides small businesses with a free energy audit. This can ensure you maximize the benefit of your green project both environmentally and financially. 

And The Bad News

  1. The new House is seeking to cut almost all Federal green incentives--According to Green Building Chronicle,The Republican Study Group, made up of more than 100 GOP House members, is targeting the wholesale elimination of funding for:

• Department of Energy Grants to States for Weatherization, $530 million annually;

• EPA’s Energy Star Program, $52 million annually; and

• federal office space acquisitions (which have helped the government build a market for LEED-certified buildings), $864 million annually.

Just to be clear, in a bill seeking $2.5 TRILLION in cuts, these total savings would account for .14% of the savings.

  1. States and municipalities are strapped for cash--Like the Federal government, states and municipalities are strapped for cash, and may cut their green incentives to provide things like trash pick up and police.  
  2. Some programs are not worth the effort to apply--All programs require paperwork, verification and in some cases, prevailing wage rates.  Sometimes the benefit is not worth the hassle.  
  3. Some programs reward green bling rather than cost effective green improvements--Some programs reward the installation of renewable energy components or other "green bling" as opposed to better  insulation or new windows.  It is key to do a cost benefit analysis of any proposed green project to ensure that it has the greatest return on investment.

For more information, the DSIRE database of Federal and state renewable energy and energy efficiency programs is always useful, and be sure to check your state and local environmental departments and local utilities.

Part 2 of Green Finance--Alternative Financing Mechanisms For Green Projects

Because of the enormous popularity of last week's post on green project finance--Let's Make A Deal--Top 10 Rules Of Green Project Finance--I have decided to do a series on the various aspects of green project finance. 

Today we will discuss alternative financing mechanisms for green projects.  Over the next few weeks, I will do posts on incentives available for green projects, an update on the PACE controversy, and the basics of renewable energy finance.  If you have suggestions for other posts you would like to see as part of this series, feel free to email me. 

Please note, I am not a finance professional, and the goal of these posts is simply to give a high-level overview of potential financing mechanisms.  As with all financial decisions, please consult your financial professional and attorney for advice specific to your project.  And now, without further adieu, a primer on alternative green financing mechanisms.

Basically, there are only a few mechanisms for financing projects.  Self-finance (your bank account); equity finance (someone else's bank account); debt finance (the bank); government finance (Uncle Sam's bank account); and grant finance (your parents' third party bank accounts). 

These basic mechanisms are no different for green projects.  However, there are some interesting variants that have developed for financing green projects of various types. Many of the financing concepts are not mutually exclusive.  To the extent that one of the models, like energy efficient mortgages, is applicable mostly to a specific sector, it can be used as a model for a specific project's financing arrangement with a particular financier. 


For commercial scale (and even residential) green and renewable energy projects, variants on leases have become an interesting project financing model. Essentially, a provider leases the equipment (typically  to the owner of a facility through a long term lease), which reduces the up front costs.

There are a wide variety of leases available, and the decision among which lease is the best solution is largely based on tax and payment considerations.  Most leases radically reduce or eliminate up front costs.  Some leases allow the lessee to take advantage of the tax incentives, renewable energy credits and depreciation on the green equipment, others do not. 

For a great overview of lease variants for renewable energy projects, see here.

Performance Contracting

Performance contracting is essentially a loan from the provider of the green/renewable equipment (known as an Energy Services Company, or ESCO) that is paid for out of the savings or benefits of the green project.  For example, suppose you want to install energy efficient improvements on a facility which will cost $1000 and will save $100 per year.  Typically, the ESCO arranges the financing, and you pay the ESCO through reduced energy bills, sharing the energy cost savings over a predetermined length of time, after which all of the energy savings revert to you.  The ESCO often guarantees the energy savings from the project. This mechanism is used for both energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and can be used with projects of almost any scale. The DOE has a handbook on performance contracting available here.

Grants In Lieu

 As part of the Stimulus bill, the Department of Treasury made available "1603 grants" which are grants in lieu of tax credits which reimburse up to 30% of the cost of installing certain renewable energy projects. Environmental Leader summarizes the 1603 grant program here:

The grant is 30 percent of the full cost of the intended solar system. Without the grant, system owners could still claim the 30 percent as a tax credit, but some businesses weren’t profitable enough to make use of the full tax credit. This grant now keeps all businesses eligible for the 30 percent incentive, not just those with enough profits (or those with financing partners with enough profits).

The full description of the program is available from the Department of Treasury.

 Energy-Efficient Mortgages And Energy Improvement Mortgages

A form of debt financing, energy efficient mortgages (and their friend, Energy Improvement Mortgages) work on the premise that implementing energy efficiencies on a property will free up cash which can pay down a debt.  The Department of Energy has a great handbook and other resources available here. HUD has qualifications guidelines, approved lenders, etc. available here. has a nice overview here:

Green, or “Energy efficient” mortgages, let you borrow extra money to pay for energy efficient upgrades to your current home or a new or old home that you plan to buy. The result is a more environmentally friendly living space that uses fewer resources for heating and cooling and has dramatically lower utility costs...At this time, Energy Efficient Mortgages aren’t second mortgages. Though they are created separately from your primary mortgage, they are ultimately rolled into your primary mortgage—so you only make only one payment per month.

Technically, energy efficient mortgages:

give borrowers the opportunity to finance cost-effective, energy-saving measures as part of a single mortgage and stretch debt-to-income qualifying ratios on loans thereby allowing borrowers to qualify for a larger loan amount and a better, more energy-efficient home.

And energy improvement mortgages:

are used for existing homes and allow borrowers to include the cost of energy-efficiency improvements in the mortgage without increasing the down payment.

The problem with energy efficient mortgages is that they are pretty small scale. For example, the FHA program only backs EEMs for one to four units.



The Freakonomics Of Place--We Have Seen The Sprawl And It Is Us

I have posted on many occasions about the importance of place in green building--green buildings on unsustainable sites are simply not green.  But it is never really true until the Grey Lady--The New York Times--says it is.  Today, on the Times' Freakonomics blog, James McWilliams had a nice little piece on the fundamental issue of building LEED buildings in an unsustainable, car-based infrastructure. 

Take the long view. From the moment of European settlement onward, American faith in Manifest Destiny has inspired aggressive development driven by land acquisition and individual choice. Sprawl started to become ingrained in the American character over two centuries ago and, as a result, middle America has inherited cities that value expansion over intensification.  To an extent, this vexed inheritance turns our cork floors and compost bins into empty expressions akin to the sun-starved solar panels adorning the Merritt Center.

What McWilliams does not acknowledge is the role that regulation and tax policy has had in developing the infrastructure the way it is. Two give just three examples--the mortgage interest tax credit encourages homeownership outside of the urban core. For many years, urban neighborhoods, the most sustainable, were red-lined--you simply couldn't get a mortgage.  Funding highways over mass transit means that more highways are built, making it possible to move further from the urban nodes.  Finally, funding schools through property tax assessments mean that inner cities with multi-family housing and greater rental concentrations will have less money to provide excellent education, driving families with children to the suburbs.

McWilliams uses the passive voice--" Sprawl started to become ingrained in the American character over two centuries ago "--as if sprawl simply appeared, like a cancer on the landscape.  Not so.  Regulatory and monetary policy implemented by elected representatives caused the unsustainable circumstance Americans now find ourselves in.  

 We have seen the sprawl, and it is us.

The Renewable Energy Tax Code Wilderness--Production, Investment and Grants OH MY!

I will make an admission.  I took tax in law school, and, it was the academic equivalent of having my left arm sawed off without anaesthesia.  Why? Mostly because things which should have been clear seemed hopelessly obscure.  Now I deal with advising clients on incentives available for sustainable projects, and the tax code and I have had to battle to a stalemate.  At least, I battle, and the tax code just sits there impentarably.

One of the features which is particularly difficicult is the relationship between 26 USC 45, which deals with tax credits for producing renewable energy (the "production tax credit" or PTC), 26 USC 48 which deals with tax credits for investing in renewable energy equipement (the "investment tax credit" or ITC) and the Renewable Energy Grant created by the ARRA.  All three of these relate to businesses which have installed renewable energy technologies, like solar, wind and geothermal.  It should be clear and easy to understand which ones apply to your business and what the incentive will be.  As with all things related to the tax code, however, it is not.

I am going to attempt to clear up some of the obscurity, but, as with all information on this blog, it is for informational purposes only, not legal advice; and you should consult your legal and financial advisor to provide you with proper advice for your business.

Title Applies to Amount of Incentive
Production Tax Credit
  •  Wind
  • Biomass
  • Geothermal
  • Solar
  • Small Irrigation
  • Municipal solid waste
  • Hydropower
  • Marine and Hydrokinetic
 1.5 cents per kW of power generated at a qualified facility for the 10 years beginning on the date the facility was placed in service AND sold to an unrelated person during the taxable year
Investment Tax Credit
  •  Solar for heating, cooling, hot water, illumination or solar process heat
  • Fuel cell
  • Microturbine
  • Geothermal
  • Combined heat and power (cogeneration)
  • Small wind
  • Ground water thermal
 30% of the cost of the "energy property" for solar and small wind, 10% for geothermal and other renewable sources
Renewable Energy Grant  Applicable property under Section 45 or 48  10% or 30% of the basis of the property, depending on the type of property placed in service during 2009 or 2010 or after 2010 if construction began on the property during 2009 or 2010 and the property is placed in service by a certain date known as the credit termination date

The incentives are mutually exclusive--The PTC and the ITC cannot both be taken, and they can be swapped for the REG, but you cannot take the PTC/ITC and the REG.

In plain english, it appears that the PTC is designed for renewable energy sources where the power is designed to be sold to others as a Renewable Energy Credit, and the ITC is designed for renewable energy sources where the power is used on-site.  The Renewable Energy Grant allows companies which have invested in either type of renewable energy capacity to receive cash, as opposed to a tax credit, which is helpful particularly if the company has no tax liability or a tax loss. 

 There are some resources available to help you sort through this morass.  The DSIRE database has quick summaries of available state and federal incentives.  The Utah Clean Energy site has a nice summary of the renewable energy features of the ARRA.   The DOE site has a useful summary of renewable energy incentives for businesses as well.

Market Stability--The Holy Grail of Green

Many months ago I wrote about the need for a floating gas tax to stabilize fuel prices, allow predictability and incentivize eco-friendly developments.  Now Ford chairman Bill Ford agrees.

Earth2tech reported:

“If prices are gyrating wildly,” he said, it becomes extremely difficult to know whether the company is planning the right vehicle or technology (if you’re operating under the assumption that automakers should supply what the market demands, and that there’s a lot less demand for fuel-sippers when gas is cheap). Ford noted that in the EU, diesel fuel “became an easy decision” for drivers after the government decided to make it much cheaper than gasoline.

When major environmental regulations were passed in the early 1970s, there was a lot of hand-wringing over how it was going to destroy the economy.  Now, with cap-and-trade, similar arguments are being made. Senator James Inhofe said yesterday, about EPA's declaration of greenhouse gases as harmful to human health:

This move by EPA will unleash a torrent of regulations that will destroy jobs, harm consumers, and extend the agency’s reach into every corner of American life.

But it turns out, in capitalism, the rules of the game don't matter, as long as they are predictable. So Obama should implement cap-and-trade, and those companies that can adapt and thrive in the new regulatory environment will survive.  And those that cannot, will not, but others will take their place.  I predict that with the attitude expressed by Bill Ford, Ford will survive...and the others should not.  

Tax Freedom Day Post--Green Building Vice Tax

Most people are thinking about taxes this week.  Today is tax freedom day, the day on which most Americans have earned enough money to pay their taxes for the year, and Wednesday is tax day. In the spirit of this week, a post about taxation. 

How do you influence people to use reusable grocery bags instead of plastic ones? 

There are a few options:

1) Ban customers from using plastic bags

2) Ban stores from providing plastic bags

3) Give away or subsidize reusable bags to customers

4) Give away or subsidize reusable bags to stores

5) Educate stores and/or customers on the benefits of reusable bags

6) Charge customers a tax for the privilege of using plastic bags

7) Charge stores a tax for the privilege of using distributing plastic bages

The first two are traditional, command-and-control regulations.  "Thou shalt not....".  Historically, this had been the model of environmental regulation.  3 and 4 are incentives.  During the Bush Administration, market based incentives and voluntary programs were very much in vogue for environmental protection. 

I believe that all four have their place.  For big, intractable problems with clear environmental consequences, command-and-control is the only way to go.  Incentives are best utilized to correct for market failures, like making solar or wind power more affordable because carbon is not priced in the cost of petroleum.

But I think five through seven--education and taxation are underutilized tools of environmental policymaking.  Miley Cyrus sporting a reusable shopping bag in the new blockbuster film is a way of educating and influencing public action.  Make the reusable tote the new "it" bag.  The green building equivalent is providing education on green building practices, and for government agencies to build green and widely promote their efforts.

Taxation is another great way to influence public choices. By taxing a plastic bag, even a small amount, people are penalized for their anti-social behavior.  We do it with cigarettes, why not plastic bags? Or stick construction? By making alternatives available at the same price as the tax--a 50 cent tax for each plastic bag, and a reusable tote at the same price, people will be more likely to choose the reusable bag. Combined with education on better choices, a penal tax is a very strong policy lever. Portland has sort of done this with the feebate structure, charging builders who want to build traditionally, and remitting that fee for green construction.  But I have yet to see a green building program which taxes builders for traditional construction.  The tax could be tied to the increased public resources needed to service traditional buildings--stormwater management, electricity, etc.


Real World Road Rules--The Realpolitik of Green Building Policymaking

I am involved in getting green building legislation passed in Philadelphia.  Basically, the bill would tie a 10 year tax abatement to LEED certification.  The greater the level of certification, the higher the tax abatement.  The bill is modelled on many other cities' incentive systems, and certainly does not go as far as Boston, Washington DC or several other cities in requiring green building practices.

What has been interesting about the process of shaping this bill and lobbying for its passage is the Realpolitik which comes into play when trying to get legislation done.  This is one of my favorite topics--where the real world intersects with theory.

In theory, everyone should be on board with green building practices.  Save the environment, save money in utilities, get federal, state and local incentives and have a great marketing tool.  In addition, most studies now report that the cost of green is down, in some cases not costing any additional resources beyond standard construction costs. 

But the reality of policymaking is a whole different ballgame.  Turf battles exist even where all the participants are supportive of green building.  Who created the legislation and who will get credit for its passage will effect whether a piece of legislation passes or dies in committee.  Special interest groups, like the affordable housing community, residential developers, mixed-use advocates and others come out  either because of cost considerations or inapplicability to their building typology.  Finally, the best bill may not be the ultimate bill that is passed--compromises made for political reasons will effect the content of the ultimate legislation. 

What is the solution? 

1. Understand the Realpolitik aspects of the process going in.  We do not live in an ivory tower, we live in a democracy with co-equal branches of government.  Engaging the power players in your jurisdiction will matter.

2. Reach out to interest groups early.  These groups should include the affordable housing community, residential developers, large development companies, contractors, the Building Industry Association if your area has one, etc. 

3. Build a coalition of supporters. Political supporters, industry supporters, academic supporters, etc.

4. Recognize that you will not please everybody.  Put in the strongest bill you can, with the best support you can.

5.  Finally, don't let the great be the enemy of the good.  Do not let the holy grail of a perfect bill supported by all constituencies stand in the way of getting something actually passed which  advances the agenda of benefitting the environment through green building practices. 

Part 1 of Regulating Green Series--Anatomy of Green Building Regulations

In the past five years, green building regulation has been on a meteoric rise. Green practices are being incorporated into state an local building and zoning codes and ordinances. According to the AIA, 14% of US cities with populations in excess of 50,000 people now have green building programs in place, and the number of counties with green building programs has grown nearly 400% since 2003. In addition, federal statutes were passed requiring federal agencies to build green, procure recycled materials, reduce energy consumption and prevent pollution.  The regulatory schemes fall into one of three basic types: command-and-control regulations, financial incentives and non-financial incentives.  

Command and Control Regulations

These laws mandate that buildings comply with a green building standard of some type. Command and control regulations often reference a private green building standard, like LEED, but may also include local green building requirements on top of the referenced standard.

Command and control regulations come in two basic types, zoning ordinances and building code changes. One model for instituting a command-and-control regulation is to pass a zoning ordinance which requires that a proposed project meet the referenced green building standard, in order to obtain zoning.

 In 2007, Boston made several amendments to the Boston Zoning Code to require all projects over 50,000 SF to be designed and planned to meet the “certified” level using the USGBC’s LEED systems modified with Boston-specific credits.

The advantage of a zoning code based regulation is that the project team can determine how to achieve the green building standard. In addition, local governments have almost exclusive control over their zoning.

Another approach is to revise the building code to require green building practices. On July 17, 2008, California adopted a green building code applying to all new construction statewide, with targets for energy efficiency, water consumption, plumbing systems, diversion of construction waste and use of environmentally sensitive materials in construction and design. 

 Some advantages to amending the building code to include green building requirements is that more buildings are generally impacted by changes to the building code, and the system of inspection for compliance with building codes is already in place.

Financial Incentives

Municipalities can also provide financial incentives to promote green building practices. These financial incentives can take almost any form: tax rebates, fee waivers, cash payments, etc. 

Portland, OR recently instituted a unique “feebate” structure whereby buildings built in a conventional manner pay a specified fee for their permits, building s built to LEED Silver standard get the fees waived and get access to green building resources, and buildings built to LEED Gold or higher actually get a rebate from the government. 


The advantage to financial incentives is that they use the market to encourage green building, as opposed to mandating green building practices.  However, there has been little data collected regarding whether financial incentives cause developers to go green where they would not have otherwise.  In other words, the value of the financial incentives in stimulating new green building projects has not been adequately studied.  


Non-Financial Incentives


The third common type of green building regulation is the non-financial incentive. Some local governments allow for increases in floor to area ratio, building height or density for building green. Others expedite the permitting process. 


Using non-financial incentives has the advantage of being inexpensive for cash-strapped local governments, and harnessing some of the same market based value of financial incentives.  It is also a good gateway for entry into regulating green buildings for local governments who want to proceed in a step-by-step fashion.


TOMORROW: To LEED or Not To LEED: Pros and Cons Of Integrating Third Party Certification Into Green Building Regulations

Tax Gas Now

To stimulate the green technology, repair infrastructure, fund transit and save the world, tax gas now.  At this moment, the price of gasoline, our carbon based friend, is $46.28.  At this price, green energy technologies like wind and solar are not competitive.  Energy efficiency improvements on houses do not make economic sense because energy is just too darned cheap. Thus continues our dependency on oil which is contributing to global warming and funding our frenemies in the middle east.  What to do? 

Tax gas now.

Here's how to do it:

First, set a price of crude where energy efficiencies will make economic sense.  Then set a floating tax which will tax up to that price point--i.e. up to that price point, the difference between the market price of oil and the set point will be tax revenue,  after that price point, there will be no need for the tax because the market price of oil will be high enough for green to make economic sense, like, say, last summer.  Finally, use the "carbon" tax on crude to fund green initiatives from green jobs to incentives for green builldings. 

But what about the economy? The trillions in stimulus (which are coming) will have to come from somewhere, might as well be a tax on crude which directly links to the problem. 

UPDATE: My friend Chris Hill at Construction Law wrote a very cogent challenge to the economics of the plan.

UPDATE: The Oil Drum had an answer--lower income taxes to compensate for gas tax.