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You need a permit for that !??

Industry organizations that include NEMA have commented on new building code proposals in California that, in the name of energy efficiency, would require permits for something as simple as changing the ballast in a fluorescent light fixture. On the face of it, a building permit for a ballast changeout does seem ridiculous. As a practical matter, many people won't pay much attention to the rule, which is a bit of a problem in itself. Rules which are not or cannot be enforced create a scofflaw culture, and insidiously, reward those who skirt the rules with greater economic efficiency. This is exactly what's happened in the small HVAC industry in California, and regulators are having a tough time getting a handle on it.

It's worth pointing out how the energy efficiency standards process works in California. Some code change proposals come from the staff at the California Energy Commission, the agency with the authority to write the regulations. Most, however, originate with consultants who come up with proposal ideas and then support them with engineering analyses. The proposals must be shown to be cost-effective over the lifetime of the measures.

Public presentations are made, and the staff of the Commission using input from stakeholders, including the affected industries — makes a proposal to commissioners, who vote on whether to accept or reject the proposal. There's plenty of room for industry to argue that specific measures are onerous, and they do, often successfully eliminating or watering down proposed regulations. That's as it should be, because consultants don't always have all the right answers.

Industry, of course, also stands to gain from an energy-efficiency standards process, and many companies understand this. Why would any company want to be stuck in an immobile commodity business, where price is the only differentiator? The leading companies are developing energy and performance innovations and using the standards process to give a market push beyond what energy prices can provide.

Economists tend to prefer Pigovian taxes as an alternative to standards and incentives. These taxes add a charge to compensate for externalities like energy security, long-term resource depletion, and environmental degradation. Another option is a cap-and-trade system, greatly preferred by Wall Street for its own benefit, which substitutes trading credits for taxes.

Unfortunately, markets, as beloved as they are, are not perfectly efficient from the standpoint of people making the best choices. This is largely because people don't have the information or time to do sophisticated economic analyses when standing at a parts counter. Standards do indeed have a place, particularly when it comes to eliminating choices that are nearly always bad, such as “wall wart” magnetic power supplies which suck up large amounts of power compared with their thrifty electronic cousins. But where there are reasonable choices, are there less onerous alternatives to the time-consuming permit process?

One solution would be vastly streamlining. We live in a computer-enabled world. Why couldn't someone get a permit on-line while buying the devices and supplies for the work? Why would a permit necessarily cost anything? Why should every permit require an inspection? For less complex installations the whole thing could be done on-line with no human intervention at all.

Moreover, the rationale for specific building codes tends to get lost through the years. Why, for example, do we require ventilated attics? There was no doubt a good reason at some point, probably having to do with allowing moisture to escape, but is that necessary in every climate? Are there alternatives? With computer-aided processes, there's the potential to bring this kind of background into the picture, helping people to understand the issues.

There's also an opportunity to help the user reach the best choice for the situation at hand, a challenging and compromising task in any case. At the California Lighting Technology Center website, for example, there's a whole range of well-written guides to modern, high quality, energy efficient lighting (http://cltc.ucdavis.edu/content/blogcategory/80/431/). A smart process with these kinds of resources embedded could make users see value in permitting.

So it seems to me there are ways that consumer and society interests could both be served, and people might even see permitting as a benefit, by moving the process into the 21st century. Government agencies are working on that concept, but it's going to take some time (and a few key retirements, no doubt) to realize it.

Resources

NEMA recently summarized its stance on the California Title 24 building code proposals: http://www.nxtbook.com/ygsreprints/NEMA/g23809_nema_ei_jan12/#/6

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