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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Seattle's Building Codes Will Include New Green Energy Provisions

Posted by on Thu, May 9, 2013 at 9:45 AM

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.


Comments (39) RSS

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delirian 1
Solar power in Seattle? What are you thinking? What percentage of the year is overcast? For fucks sake! If Seattle wants to be green, then build a solar power plant out by the Tri-Cities (or better yet build one in Nevada, Arizona, or another southern State that has a high solar flux). Putting solar panels on houses in Seattle is fucking idiotic.
Posted by delirian on May 9, 2013 at 10:20 AM · Report this
MacCrocodile 2
Hear hear! Any attempts at improvement would be incomplete! Let's burn the city down!
Posted by MacCrocodile on May 9, 2013 at 10:37 AM · Report this
delirian 3
@2: You just want to look like you are doing something. Fancy physical concepts like solar flux, seasons, and latitude are irrelevant. I get it, math and physics are hard. I just figured that most people in Seattle would be able to remember how often the sky is grey (and possibly raining) and logically link that to the device on the roof that needs sunlight.
Posted by delirian on May 9, 2013 at 10:57 AM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 4
You're really not familiar with the idea of bear spray? It's kinda an old thing.…
Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on May 9, 2013 at 10:59 AM · Report this
@1- A solar cell expert can tell you more about the specifics, but yep, solar works just fine here.

I very much like the concept of quantity over efficiency, in terms of solar cells. The idea is that we don't really need to fuss as much with making each cell and each installation super efficient, but worry more about putting cells up in large quantity.
Posted by Chris Jury on May 9, 2013 at 11:00 AM · Report this
delirian 6
@5: The ones who want to sell the systems? I've heard their arguments. They are excellent at polishing a turd. They explain how rain is beneficial because it cleans the panels! And they'll say that clouds only reduce output by 50% (only!). They are full of shit. They just want to sell bullshit to suckers.
Posted by delirian on May 9, 2013 at 11:10 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 7
Seattle is actually a really good location for solar.

Some of the new tech rolling out from the UW includes thin film moldable photovoltaic film made from organics.

That said, the highest ROI for solar here is for heating water.
Posted by Will in Seattle on May 9, 2013 at 11:13 AM · Report this
What problem does this solve? 99% of our electricity already comes from "green" sources.
Posted by Sean P. on May 9, 2013 at 11:25 AM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 9
Sean, anytime you can offset load with renewables you are helping keep that power source you refer to "green" - too much electrical load, and the utility has to start looking elsewhere for power - especially during low water years.

And keep in mind that that green power is only true of City Light's territory - go across the lake, and suddenly you have 25% coal in the mix. PSE has a huge coal plant out in Montana.

Will, one of the things that was being considered for the new Yesler Terrace project was a district energy system using solar hot water for heating and cooling. I don't know what became of that.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 9, 2013 at 11:30 AM · Report this
"Yeah, building codes are among the most boring, bureaucratic things I can imagine, second only to zoning"

As someone who reads building and zoning codes almost all day, every day... I'm boring.
Posted by colinrichardson on May 9, 2013 at 11:36 AM · Report this
delirian 11
@8: Electricity is fungible. And CO2 is global. Any 'green' power that isn't used in Washington can be exported to replace coal or natural gas in other states, thus mitigating to a very tiny degree the CO2 rise in Seattle.
Posted by delirian on May 9, 2013 at 11:37 AM · Report this
While it is certainly correct to say that electricity not used by Seattle is electricity that could be used by another city on the grid, that's not a very good argument in favor of requiring (the capability for) rooftop solar in the city of Seattle. But, hey, solar is a big deal right now whether or not implementing it is reasonable.
Posted by Sean P. on May 9, 2013 at 1:50 PM · Report this
#1, thought I'd let you know that #5 is lying through his teeth. Solar power in Seattle "works" because it gets an 8:1 subsidy. Even then, the payback is 10 years. The fuckwits who run Seattle don't want to hear the facts, because they conflict with their faith.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 9, 2013 at 3:29 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 14
Unbrainwashed dear, A wise man once said "Nature abhors a vacuum", and he was right! Just let all that anger and pain go, and love will rush in to fill that void.

Let go and let God, dear. Let go and let God......
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 9, 2013 at 4:09 PM · Report this
yelahneb 15
"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."

Another benefit to this: more space for rooftop gardens.
Posted by yelahneb on May 9, 2013 at 4:35 PM · Report this
@1: As you'll find when you talk to solar power and green energy nerds (yay!), it turns out solar power works really well (80 percent efficiency or so) on light or medium overcast days, which is actually much of our weather. The little bit of cloud cover means the solar cells get light from all directions and they get almost as much as they do on a sunny day. Solar power is ubiquitous in Germany, which gets a similar amount of sunlight as Seattle (read: not much).

@13: The cost is just gonna keep going down, buddy, especially if we make it easier/cheaper with policies like this. Also, Catalina, you crack me up.
Posted by Anna Minard on May 9, 2013 at 4:50 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 17
@13 wrong. Solar built using the just-agreed-to building code standards runs - without subsidies - about 50 cents per watt. Oil power gets subsidies, and runs about the same. Even hydro is subsidized.

Oil costs more today than wind or solar built to modern build standards - note that does NOT mean a residential house build, but it does mean a large apartment building build or factory build or commercial complex build.

Note the drop in solar costs has actually impacted a number of Chinese solar production firms. As cheap solar and wind roll out in large quantities worldwide, the energy picture is changing dramatically.

(various sources - read the original source papers)
Posted by Will in Seattle on May 9, 2013 at 5:37 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 18
But, I should point out costs differ between solar film, solar cells, bio solar, solar heating (aka passive), solar cooling, indirect solar (building technique). Really, right now the main problem is the energy usage cycle - but even that is changing due to metering and off-peak usage for commercial residential and industrial demand of energy.

In general, hydro is still cheaper here. But two forms of solar in large scale (inexpensive) production are already competitive in building.
Posted by Will in Seattle on May 9, 2013 at 5:40 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 19
Why, thank you, Anna dearest. As someone who has spent a lot of time on solar issues (from a utility standpoint) for the last several years, I can vouch for your claim about solar on cloudy days. Indeed, I have been at houses on the dreariest November days and observed the billing meter "spinning" backwards. (Quotes because newer meters don't spin, but they still register the amount of kwh going back onto the grid)

And here's the thing about the "payback": Poor dear unbrainwashed is only taking the incentive into consideration (not that he really understands that, but he is trying). When you have a solar array on your home, you are seeing an immediate reduction in your electric bill. The more efficient your house is, the more the reduction, but even if you are a big energy slob, you'll still see a reduced bill. It is very possible to build up enough of a credit on your utility bill in the summer months to have quite a padding to get you through the winter months.

Yes, a solar array is expensive. But less expensive than a Hummer, or a new kitchen, or an in-ground swimming pool - none of which will save you money in the long run. The WA state solar incentive and tax breaks are nice, but they are icing on the cake. The real value is the saving in energy.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 9, 2013 at 7:29 PM · Report this
I have a house of my own. This, of course, makes me the enemy of every Seattle fuckwit because I have a house and not an apodment. So maybe you'll want to stop reading right now, fuckwits.

For those who keep reading, I'll point out that my roof as an unobstructed southern exposure. So I was at some neighborhood thing, and stopped in at two or three solar panel booths and got all the information. Did all the numbers, right there in the booths with the guys.

Put solar panels on your house, and use WA-made equipment, and you get a subsidy that equals roughly eight times the retail rate. It's beyond outrageous, and far more generous than any solar subsidy elsewhere in the United States that I've ever heard of. And when we went through the cost side, the payback was 10 years.

Not only that, but because of the relatively low photonic energy in Seattle, even a big panel array doesn't come close to providing all the energy a house needs. That was, in the end, why I didn't do it. See, unlike the fuckwits who write articles for the Stranger and make stupid comments on them, I'm not too interested in empty symbolic statements. Even if I went on a radical anti-electricity kick, and say, killed off my hot tub, never used the sauna, shit canned the greenhouse, replaced every light bulb with L.E.D.s, and so on, the panels wouldn't generate more than a quarter of the juice year-'round, and probably a lot less.

And this is with an 8:1 subsidy, whose ethics are fine with the fuckwits but highly questionable to me, given that I've got a pretty healthy personal stash and don't think the baristas, fast-food clerks, and other assorted peons should be forced to pay higher rates to subsidize my personal phony eco-vanity statement. So, Seattle fuckwits, I suppose we'll just have to agree to disagree.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 10, 2013 at 1:54 AM · Report this
p.s.: If solar panels had to compete without subsidies in Seattle, the payback would be 80 years. And that's before accounting for the fact that panels lose 2% of their generating ability each year. Which means that solar panels can never pay for themselves in Seattle without a subsidy, no matter how long they're up there. Never.

Consider who puts solar panels on their roof. Weathy people with single-family houses. Isn't it funny what the Seattle fuckwits want the working ants to pay for? My solar panels. Which don't ever actually pay back. There's a reason I call you people fuckwits. You can't add, subtract, multiply, or divide. What would you like to subsidize next? My dinners at Canlis? I do appreciate what you kick in for the symphony tickets, but isn't there a limit?
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 10, 2013 at 2:04 AM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 22
There there, unbrainwashed. I'm sorry you couldn't qualify for the financing on the solar array. Maybe once you get all those saunas and hot tubs paid off, you can try again.

You know, if you gave up that daily triple Peppermint Mocha Frappuccino, you'd not only be able to pay off those bills, you'd get to go on a shopping spree because you'd need smaller pants!

In the meantime, can you tell us where the money for the solar incentive comes from?
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 10, 2013 at 7:03 AM · Report this
#22, okay, yep, I'm too poverty stricken to get solar panels. Repeat that one often enough, and you might even believe it. The alternative is much, much scarier: that there's actually someone who thinks it'd be unethical to ask people who have less he does to pay an outrageous subsidy for my pointless, empty eco gesture.

By the way, since you evidently worked as a clerk at Seattle City Light, I doubt you understand the full extent of the subsidy. You see, City Light gets 92% of its power from hydro, at a wholesale cost of about 3 cents a kWh. When I mentioned the eight-fold subsidy, that's eight times the retail rate. In reality, the subsidy is more than 20 times what City Light pays for its hydro power.

Utilities elsewhere will typically allow customers with solar panels a 1:1 offset for surplus kWhs fed into the grid on sunny summer afternoons. That's generous, given that those same utilities pay any other generator a wholesale rate. To put it in terms you might be able to understand if you try real hard, the typical subsidy gives an end user with solar panels a subsidy of roughly 2:1 (on average) over the rates it pays anyone else.

But that's not enough for Seattle's fuckwit eco-fakers. Nope, they have bullshitted everyone into paying a much, much higher subsidy, all so they can do what Seattle's fuckwits do best: give themselves the feel-good illusion that any of this makes any sense or helps the environment.

Where does the money from the solar incentive come from, you ask. The answer, which you might or might not know, and in any case would never want to admit, is that it's folded into the rate base. The price of electricity from City Light, which is (like every utility) horribly managed, is set to increase by 25% over the next few years, partly because of that subsidy, not to mention the wind turbine boondoggle, most of which is handed to foreign corporations that own them.

But hey, you feel good, and in the end, that's all that a Seattle fuckwit really cares about.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 10, 2013 at 10:28 AM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 24
Yes dear, I do work for City Light. Thanks for noticing. That's very sweet of you.

The solar incentive is from the state. The entire state, not just Seattle. Each utility pays out the incentive, and is then credited that amount in utility taxes they would normally pay to the state. You can read about it here:…

And while you are right - sort of - on the rate increases, it has nothing whatsoever at all to do with either wind or solar. Nice try though!

You can read all about the justification for the rate plan at…

You might like to know that the rate increases were vetted and approved by a citizen's rate review panel. You can read about their work at
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 10, 2013 at 12:40 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 25
Oh dear, I should clarify: Rate are not going up because of renewables that are eligible for the legislature-enacted state production incentive.

Rates are impacted by the voter approved utility renewable energy mandate of I-937 (which won in King County by roughly 59%-41%)
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 10, 2013 at 1:11 PM · Report this
#24, how could I not have noticed that you work for City Light? Utility employees are noticeable for their stupidity and laziness. If we set off a neutron bomb that only took out your kind, I have little doubt that we'd be up and running, in better shape than before, by randomly recruiting your replacements from the shelters and under bridges.

Yes, you will laugh, or whatever. But it's true. The comic strip "Dilbert" came from an employee of the Pacific Bell phone company before it was merged into what eventually bought the bankrupt AT&T's brand name. Phone companies are nests of geniuses compared to the special needs corral where you work.

Thanks for clarifying that the subsidies come out of Washington State's general fund, through an indirect maneuver. That makes it so much more ethical for your especially shit-for-brains fuckwit nest to pay gigantic subsidies for a technology that otherwise could never justify the up-front cost. Leave it to a sub-Dilbert to feel good about that.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 10, 2013 at 3:04 PM · Report this
Oh,.and a corrupted "citizens review panel" approved your rates. Wow, what acid did you swallow to think that matters, anyway?
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 10, 2013 at 3:07 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 28
Oh you poor dear, You really are having a bad day, aren't you?

Anger is like an old worn out coat. Sure, you may think it's comfortable, but it's not very pretty to look at. Why not buy a new coat, and send that one to the landfill?

Just remember - You can’t think your way into a new way of living… You have to live your way into a new way of thinking!
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 10, 2013 at 4:49 PM · Report this
delirian 29
@25: Have you ever worked in the actual generation or distribution? I have. And I must agree with Unbrainwashed here. Solar power in Seattle is fucking stupid. People that are talking about solar power getting through the clouds are talking out of their asses. And the people who don't understand that the solar flux drops significantly in the winter are also talking out of their asses. I have a degree in physics. I know how to do the fucking calculations.

Solar power in Seattle serves one purpose only: so that you can brag about it to your neighbors and appear 'green'. People that actually give a shit are investing in solar thermal projects down south where they don't have to deal with overcast and the solar flux is higher year round. Here is the calculation you need to do: based on the orientation of your panels, the time of day, the day in the year, and your latitude, integrate across an entire year to determine the energy deposited. Compare and contrast locations then. Btw, the best you can every hope for with a 100% efficient solar panel on the equator or within 23.5 degrees at the peak time of the year is 1 KW/m^2. Seattle has a latitude of 47.5 degrees. At the worst time in the year you get to add another 23.5 degrees to that. If you do the math, the peak intensity at the best point in the day on the winter solstice is 1/3rd of that best point in the day on the summer solstice (assuming for both cases that the solar panels are mounted perfectly to receive the most solar radiation at that time). But the day is also shorter on the winter solstice and more likely to be overcast. So your awesome solar panels might be lucky to make 1/10th of the energy in a day in the winter compared to what they do in the summer.
Posted by delirian on May 10, 2013 at 4:51 PM · Report this
#29, you are trying to give facts to a Seattle fuckwit who's every last bit as faith-based as Sarah Palin or Pat Robertson. On top of that, you're deploying the third digit of your I.Q. in a conversation with not just a utility employee, but one who works for Seattle City Light.

All of which is to say that your efforts, and mine, are doomed before they ever begin. You have a degree in physics, and I have an extensive background in both dealing with utilities of various types and in studying the practical details of the various "clean" technologies. We both know what we're talking about, which is actually a liability when dealing with the faithful, be they the usual liberal Seattle fuckwits or the far-right wing nutcases that comprise the backbone of the Republican Party.

Yes, the place to put solar is indeed down south. It makes all kinds of sense in the deserts of far SE California, southern Nevada, and Arizona. At one point, I recall calculating at a circle 35 miles in diameter filled with PV panels and plopped down there could supply 100% of U.S. electricity needs, at least in theory. In practice it wouldn't work, for all kinds of reasons, and maybe the circle would have to be larger, but the general idea is worth the thought experiment.

Seattle solar? That's a completely different animal. This city is just chock full of eco-fakery. It'd be funny and enteraining if it wasn't so expensive, and if those costs didn't fall on people who really can't afford to bear them. Oh well, the fuckwits have a driving emotional need to feel good, and we all know what Seattle's #1 priority is.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 10, 2013 at 5:26 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 31
Oh dear lord, that was a lot of blahblahblah for a Friday afternoon.

I actually do work in distribution delirian, and I routinely see instances where people build up a big credit on their bill in the summer, and use that to cover their costs in the winter. You can drone on all you want, but the meter is where the rubber hits the road, and net metering works for them.

As far as the renewable incentives go, If you have a problem with them, you'd best take it up with the voters of Washington state.

But really - what's the big deal? It's not like it's hurting you if your neighbor wants some solar panels. There are certainly more interesting things to get all self-righteous about.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 10, 2013 at 5:31 PM · Report this
p.s.: I didn't even start to go into the detailed photonic calculations, because it wouldn't matter to Seattle fuckwit, especially a City Light sleepwalker. Always best to give it once-over for the developmentally disabled.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 10, 2013 at 5:33 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 33
Unbrainwashed, you can never really love until you learn to love yourself.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 10, 2013 at 5:36 PM · Report this
See, delirian? Catalina is just as stupid and stubborn as her sister, Sarah Palin. Never expect that facts or reason will have any impact on a stupid, self-righteous, politicized Seattle fuckwit bitch.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 10, 2013 at 5:49 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 35
Unbrainwashed, you flatter me. Sarah Palin is much more attractive and successful than I.

But I find it interesting that you claim to know so very much about utilities, yet you can never correctly answer the very simple questions I - by your assessment a complete moron - ask you about the industry.

I may be just a dumb city employee, but I do worry about you: the constant anger, the middle-of-the-night posts, the allusions to financial problems. Things are never that bad, dear. Slog is a loving and supportive community, just open up and let the cleansing energy wash over you.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 10, 2013 at 8:51 PM · Report this
#35, yes, you are just a dumb city employee.
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 11, 2013 at 4:45 AM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 37
Another middle-of-the-night post. I worry so for you, unbrainwashed. When was the last time you had an orgasm that wasn't self-induced?
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 11, 2013 at 1:59 PM · Report this
10 minutes ago. And you?
Posted by Unbrainwashed on May 11, 2013 at 4:42 PM · Report this
Catalina Vel-DuRay 39
The excitement you got from seeing that I posted again doesn't count as non self-induced, unbrainwashed. But I am flattered.
Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay on May 11, 2013 at 6:05 PM · Report this

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