Santa Barbara Explores the Art of the Possible

Some say governments move too slowly and that bureaucracies can impede progress. But just last month the Santa Barbara City Council and staff bucked the stereotype and moved to approve a potentially momentous change in the building code. With broad support from developers, architects, contractors and the environmental community, the City increased the energy-efficiency standards for all new construction. Importantly, the project moved from conception to implementation in just over a year, beginning with a lecture by architect Ed Mazria, the founder of the Architecture 2030 Challenge and concluding with the City approving its new ordinance in October. Upon review by the California Energy Commission, the ordinance will become effective early this year.

Buildings in our region constitute about 40 percent of our total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions — and local governments have jurisdiction over building codes. Under the Architecture 2030 Challenge spearheaded by Mazria, all new buildings and retrofits should use 50 percent less fossil fuel than national averages. By decreasing energy use in buildings, we can have a significant impact and curtail global warming.

The Challenge is a gradual process that calls for a 60 percent decrease in fossil fuel use by 2010, a 70 percent decrease in 2015, and so forth until we reach carbon-neutrality in 2030 (using no fossil fuels to operate buildings). The City’s new ordinance takes the first step and sets a standard for all residential new construction to be 20 percent more efficient than today’s Title 24 and all commercial new construction be 10 percent more efficient.

These slightly tighter standards will meet the first step of the Challenge because of California’s already stringent energy efficiency code: Title 24. Enacted in 1978 to keep demand for fossil fuels down and save consumers money on energy bills, Title 24 has slowly ratcheted up energy efficiency standards over the years, which has helped California’s per-capita electricity use stay the same as it was in the 1970s. In contrast, the rest of the U.S. has seen per-capita use over the last 30 years rise by 50 percent. The energy saving we have seen, and the energy savings we will realize in the future, are beneficial for our environment, our health and our pocketbooks.

The Architecture 2030 Coalition, a group chaired and coordinated by the Community Environmental Council that included the American Institute of Architects Santa Barbara Chapter, the Santa Barbara Contractors Association, Built Green Santa Barbara and the Sustainability Project, worked with the City as it conducted its work on the ordinance. Due in part to the coalition’s efforts, the ordinance was supported broadly in the community and by the City Council, which voted unanimously to implement the ordinance.

By working collaboratively, the community, staff and Council were able to pass a significant piece of legislation that will enact real change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, air pollutants and fossil fuel use. Together, this will help maintain the quality of life we have come to expect in Santa Barbara, while saving money on electricity and gas bills.

State government, through the Public Utilities Commission, is moving in the same direction by directing the utilities (Southern California Edison and the Southern California Gas Company in our area) to use their energy-efficiency funding to achieve zero net energy homes by 2020. This is a very ambitious, but achievable, goal. The Public Utilities Commission also recently required the utilities to use their funding to achieve zero net energy in new commercial construction by 2030. “Zero net energy” means that buildings, on an average annual basis, use literally no external energy.

The utilities manage about $2 billion every three years to increase energy-efficiency throughout the state, paid for by a small charge on our utility bills. With these new decisions from the Public Utilities Commission, the utilities will now aggressively ramp up their efforts to reduce energy use in new construction and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Governor Schwarzenegger and the Legislature also approved AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, in 2006, which requires the state to return to 1990 emissions levels by 2020. The utilities energy-efficiency programs will be a key factor in achieving this goal.

Santa Barbara has now taken the lead on this issue and is showing other local governments what is possible, given support from the community. Additional incentives provided by state government and the utilities will help local governments achieve dramatic improvements in energy efficiency over time — a perfect carrot and stick approach to achieving real change on the ground.

The Community Environmental Council has also published a 133-page report entitled, A New Energy Direction: A Blueprint for Santa Barbara County as part of the CEC’s Fossil Free by ’33 campaign. The report can be downloaded here.

Megan Birney is a Senior Program Associate with the Community Environmental Council. Tam Hunt, who collaborated on both the report and this article, is the Energy Program Director and Attorney. More information on CEC’s programs can be found at

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