A single solar cell—so thin you can barely see it—in front of a wall of panels.
  • Anna Minard
  • A single solar cell—so thin you can barely see it—in front of a wall of panels.
Every three years, the city updates its building codes. WAIT! Don't fall asleep yet! Yeah, building codes are among the most boring, bureaucratic things I can imagine, second only to zoning—it all makes me want to run immediately to report on "Seattle's Thelma and Louise" (bear mace?!) or an allegedly PCP-crazed "twice-tasered train passenger."

But this shit really matters. The rules concerning how our city is built decide how it looks, how it functions, how much it costs, and, in this case, how much or how little we contribute to an impending climate apocalypse.

Next month, the newest commercial building codes (residential codes are run by the state) will head to the city council for approval, and in them will be new energy requirements. I started asking around at city hall because at a solar-power-nerd party I went to last month, someone asked city council member Mike O'Brien if it would be possible to change our building codes to make solar power more affordable—a lot of the cost of installing solar panels on a roof has to do with strengthening the roof to hold them, working around poorly placed vents/fans/skylights, and getting at the electrical system to hook it up. That seemed pretty fucking reasonable to O'Brien, who said he'd look into it. Turns out the new codes will address just that.

Duane Jonlin, the city's energy code and energy conservation advisor, says it's all about "phantom design"—adding small requirements to the planning process that don't increase the cost of building, but make future solar projects easier. "As the [solar-power] systems get dramatically less expensive over time," he says, "the cost of moving those bathroom vents and fans and junk out of the way would be an increasingly large portion of the cost" of putting panels on the roof. His new requirements, based on a California solar-ready code, would require that commercial buildings five stories or less make 40 percent of their roof "free of vents and fans and clutter" and relatively unshaded, if possible. There'll also need to be a little extra space for electrical gear solar systems need to hook up to.

He guesses that in a decade or less, "without the need for government subsidies, people will be slathering their buildings in in this stuff." It'll just be too cost-effective not to. But if we don't prepare for that by making the process easier and cheaper, it just pushes further into the future "the day when it becomes an economic no-brainer to put this on your roof."

Another addition to the codes is going to be a mandatory, small amount of renewable energy built in to commercial projects. Currently, according to Jonlin, the city energy code has a "modest" renewable energy requirement—but "very few projects" have actually complied, because there's an exception: Buy renewable energy credits on the open market, and you don't have to put it into your building. That makes sense for City Light, he says, which pays a lot of money over a long period of time—"it does build windmills somewhere." But a one-time customer buying credits out there on the cheap doesn't really get anything done. So he's removing the exception, and as an appeasement, cutting in half how much renewable energy is required.

Will anyone oppose the code changes? "Usually these are non-controversial," he tells me, "because building codes are so boring." Hey, man, it's no nunchuck-twirler arrest, but it still matters.