Oregon lawmakers work on ways to boost energy efficiency in buildings

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Legislators in Oregon have a lot on their plates as the new session gets underway, including top priorities like housing, homelessness and crime, to name a few.

But lawmakers are also working on a new package of environmental bills aimed at an aspect of climate change that they say doesn’t get enough attention: Oregon’s buildings.

Rep. Pam Marsh and Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber are spearheading the effort to increase efficiency in the state’s buildings and bolster their resilience as the climate continues to warm. 

“The second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions are buildings, so we have to work on this,” Lieber said. “We know that our needs for our buildings are changing, especially in the face of climate change.”

One of their top priorities will be to promote the adoption of heat pumps. Heat pumps are electric systems that can replace older furnaces that run on natural gas. Unlike gas furnaces, though, heat pumps can provide both heating and cooling.

“Because conditions on the ground over the last couple of years have helped us understand that cooling is now going to be part of our lives,” Marsh said. “We’ve had these heat events where people have died, and we now understand that changing conditions really mean that heating and cooling are essential.”

Marsh and Lieber also hope to create new energy efficiency regulations for large commercial buildings, get fossil fuels out of most state-run facilities and take some building codes that were part of previous executive orders and enshrine them permanently in legislation.

Perhaps their top priority is to build a new navigation system to help Oregonians wade through the various state and federal tax credits, rebates and incentives aimed at offsetting the initial costs of efficiency upgrades like heat pumps, insulation or new windows.

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress last year, included $369 billion aimed at fighting climate change, but it can be difficult for home and business owners to figure out what they qualify for and how to access the money available to them.

“We know that Oregonians in the next couple of years have the potential to tap state and federal funding, especially federal funding for energy efficiency upgrades to their homes and small businesses,” Marsh said. “Setting up navigation systems and making sure that people understand what money is available to them and how to get it, that’s a high priority.”

The proposals all stem from the findings of a 27-member, bipartisan task force that met throughout last year and issued a report with recommendations. Given that the task force represented a wide swath of Oregonians, including industry and environmental advocacy organizations, Lieber and Marsh said they were confident it would have support from both sides of the aisle.

But it does come with a price tag. While the exact language has yet to be released, Marsh estimated the package of bills would likely cost between $20 and $40 million, which would come from the state’s general fund.

But Lieber said those upfront costs would be worth it for the long-term payoff.

“If we do it right, we’re going to maximize the federal dollars that are coming into Oregon,” Lieber said. “If it costs us a little more money in order to make sure that we are fighting climate change, that will, in the end, cost us less because we’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions.”

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