Energy-efficient Cool-roof Legislation: Creating Jobs and Reducing Energy Costs

Building on two roofing trends—higher thermal performance and cooler roofs in hotter climates—that have policymakers and architects seeing eye to eye, energy-efficient cool-roof legislation offers a significant opportunity to increase building energy efficiency and create jobs. Known in the last Congress in the Senate as S. 1575, the Energy-Efficient Cool Roof Jobs Act, and in the House of Representatives as H.R. 2962, the Roofing Efficiency Jobs Act, the legislation is scheduled to be reintroduced this spring.

The intent of the legislation is to encourage improvement in the thermal performance of existing roofs and, where appropriate in the designer’s judgment, encourage the use of a white or reflective roof surface in hotter climates. This is a clear win-win for the environment and building owners in terms of reduced energy costs and reduced pollution associated with energy consumption.

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SIGNIFICANT SAVINGS lie within the commercial roofing sector, where more than 50 billion square feet of flat roofs are currently available for retrofit, 4 billion of which are typically retrofitted each year. The legislation would provide a 20-year depreciation period (instead of the current 39 years) for commercial roofs that meet minimum R-values that are significantly higher (requiring more insulation) than those required under state and local building codes and that have a white or other highly reflective surface. This change would correct an inequity in the current depreciation system (the average life span of a low-slope roof is only 17 years). By providing this incentive, the federal government would allow building owners and architects to decide whether the combination of thermal insulation and reflective roofs are appropriate for a given climate.

The required R-values under the proposed legislation are identical to the prescriptive requirements found under ASHRAE 189.1-2011, “Standard for the Design of High-Performance, Green Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings”. This legislation would be limited to retrofits of existing low-slope roofs and would not be available to new buildings. The cool roof requirement would only apply to buildings in ASHRAE Climate Zones 1 through 5, which covers approximately the area of the country from Chicago and Boston south. Roofs may qualify for the depreciation in zones 6, 7 and 8 but would not need a cool surface. View a map of the ASHRAE Climate Zones.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Annual Energy Review, 2011, buildings account for 19 percent of the nation’s total energy usage and 34 percent of its electricity usage. Policies directed at commercial buildings are important to improving the economy, reducing pollution and strengthening energy efficiency. Although the country has over time maintained a steady pace in improving energy efficiency, a huge potential still exists, especially for commercial buildings. A wide range of credible estimates are available that point to this potential for cost-effective energy-efficiency improvements (see the graph).

THIS PROPOSED legislation complements the approaches taken in more comprehensive energy-efficiency proposals by focusing on the roof, which is the only building-envelope component that is regularly replaced but rarely upgraded to address energy and other environmental impacts.

Most buildings were constructed before building energy codes were first developed in the mid-1970s, or buildings were constructed under relatively weak codes, so these older, under-insulated roofs offer an important opportunity for increased energy savings. During the next 17 to 20 years, most of the weatherproof membranes on all commercial roofs will be replaced or recovered, which is the most cost-effective time to add needed insulation.

By accelerating demand for energy-efficient commercial roofs, the proposed legislation would:

    ▪▪ Create nearly 40,000 new jobs among roofing contractors and manufacturers.
    ▪▪ Add $1 billion in taxable annual revenue to the construction sector.
    ▪▪ Save $86 million in energy costs in the first year.
    ▪▪ Eliminate and offset carbon emissions by 1.2 million metric tons (equal to emissions of 229,000 cars).

THE LEGISLATION has the support of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association; National Roofing Contractors Association; Alliance to Save Energy; American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy; Associated Buildings & Contractors Inc.; Building Owners and Managers Association International; United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers; and several more construction industry associations.

When Sens. Cardin and Crapo reintroduce the Energy-Efficient Cool Roof Jobs Act, they hope it will influence the future debate about tax and energy policy. Although consideration of tax reform has stalled for the moment, when Congress returns to this issue it will be a golden opportunity to consider ideas for reforming cost-recovery periods and removing the disincentives that overly long depreciation schedules currently place on building energy-efficiency improvements.