Both the House and the Senate recently passed new and very different energy bills that could offer contractors a wealth of opportunities for expanding business while positioning the electrical contracting industry to make a substantial impact on how the country becomes more energy efficient and energy independent.

The bills—H.R. 6 in the Senate and H.R. 3221 in the House—attempts to balance the country’s diverse energy needs against the hot-button political issue of energy independence in lengthy and far-reaching legislation. But at a combined length of more than 1,200 pages, there are plenty of areas for ECs to find potential work.

Efficiency in new construction

Three areas Congress focused on are those that affect electrical contractors most.

In the Senate bill, the federal government would offer renewable energy construction grants for new construction, and it would include an energy-efficient commercial building initiative to develop technologies and policies that would lead toward energy-efficient commercial construction by the year 2050 for all new buildings.

The House bill calls for incentives for federal agencies and departments, as well as commercial entities, to encourage use of green building technologies while reviewing budgets and building plans. There also is a move toward “zero-energy” construction, with a goal that all new commercial buildings constructed after 2025 be zero-net-energy buildings.

It also would call for conversion of at least 50 percent of existing commercial buildings to zero-net-energy buildings by the year 2035. Furthermore, the House bill would call for stronger residential building codes and more regular updates to those codes to increase energy efficiency by 30 percent by 2010 and 50 percent by 2020.

“All of these provisions mean more business for contractors, beginning now and extending for years into the future,” said Bob White, executive director of Government Affairs at the National Electrical Contractors Association.

The nation’s power grid

The country’s power grid is stretched to capacity and in need of significant upgrades and new construction. Both the House and Senate bills seek to modernize and make more efficient the grid network to enhance its reliability and reduce transmission power losses. H.R. 3221 also would call for a report on smart grid technology and the development of smart grid capability. Congress would fund upgrades with $100 million a year until 2012. This is an opportunity of immense value to electrical line contractors since the grid spans the country, and reliable power affects all citizens. Its upgrade and modernization means more electrical construction opportunities for all contractors.

The House bill also would establish an investment-matching grant program, which provides for reimbursement of one-fourth of investments in the program up to $250 million for 2008 and $500 million a year for 2009 to 2012.

Education programs also would benefit. The House bill would provide funds, support and certification for education programs focused on solar energy development. It also would provide for competitive photovoltaic demonstration programs for states, where the federal government would offer funding from $15 million in 2008 up to $70 million in 2012 for state education programs.

Token efforts for energy efficiency

Finally, Congress has carved a space for itself to be the leader in energy efficiency and green construction. Anyone who has come to Washington during August knows the sun is intense, and the humidity is overpowering. The House bill would take advantage of that sun by studying the feasibility of installing photovoltaic panels on the Rayburn House Office Building. Within six months of the bill becoming law, the Architect of the Capitol—the office responsible for all building construction within the Capitol complex—would be required to report on the feasibility of installing the panels and an analysis of costs and potential savings.

The House bill also would require the Architect of the Capitol to include energy- efficiency and preventative climate change measures in the Capitol’s master plan.

The Senate bill also includes provisions requiring the Department of Energy to install a photovoltaic system at its Washington, D.C., headquarters for $30 million.

“Congress appears truly to have discovered energy efficiency and new technology in these pieces of legislation,” White said. “However, we will not know specifics until we have a unified bill in front of us, since the House and Senate versions are so different in their approaches. That will occur only after what could be a lengthy conference between House and Senate bill managers and involved Members.”

Energy legislation now in Congress would establish an enormous undertaking with far-reaching goals and decades-long timelines. But the effort by the Congress to come up with a comprehensive program makes it clear that Congress is looking at short- and long-term solutions to the nation’s potential energy crisis and its future needs. In these measures, it also shows it is willing to put federal money where it is needed to turn these solutions into reality.  EC