Sec. Chu pushes cool roofs – and Fox pushes back

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his long tenure at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, Energy Secretary Steven Chu is making news for pushing what many think is a “triple play” climate change winner: cool roofs.  As LBNL researchers have shown, making roofs more heat-reflective cools the earth dramatically, reduces energy consumption (by reducing air conditioning), and makes cities more healthful by combating the urban heat island effect.

Transforming a regular roof into a “cool roof” means painting or surfacing it a lighter color, though recent advances mean that cool roofs are now available in many colors, not just white.  As Climate Progress discusses here, lightening roofs is an easy step we should be taking now to address climate change.  It’s relatively easy, cheap, available, and effective.

But check out the play that climate skeptic Steven Milloy (billed as a science expert) gets in this story on Fox News, criticizing Chu’s remarks and treating cool roofs as some batty, off-the-cuff idea: 

Milloy says he’s certain that it would be a huge waste of time and money. “How would this accomplish anything? What’s the expense?” he asks. “This shows you how even Nobel winners get lost when they step outside their fields of expertise.” . . . “What if we do this, and solar activity decreases?” he wonders. “We need sunlight to make vitamin D. Plants need it to make photosynthesis.” . . . “It sounds like some dubious global-warming calculation that someone made on the back of an envelope.”

I understand why skeptics might rally the troops to resist transformative changes like carbon caps and cap-and-trade bills, but is there a powerful dark-roof lobby I don’t know about?  Why the hostility?  And what is he talking about re decreased solar activity?

Reader Comments

6 Replies to “Sec. Chu pushes cool roofs – and Fox pushes back”

  1. White roofs actually last much longer, too, so I have heard that many roofers are against them simply because it gives them less work.

    Milloy’s comment is ridiculous on so many levels–does he think plants won’t get sunlight if we have white roofs?

  2. You’re unfamiliar with Big Cool Roof? Together with Big Energy Audit, it conspired to steal the election for Obama in exchange for massive stimulus bill funding and government scare tactics to help drum up business.

    I’m glad somebody’s keeping tabs on these nutjobs, but I don’t want you to lose your sanity in the process.

  3. It’s funny how Milloy counters with “How would this accomplish anything?” and goes on to criticize a Nobel laureate based on the fact that he (Milloy) has no understanding of what’s going on (or at least no idea how to legitimately argue against Chu).

    And then to follow up with “what if we do this, and solar activity decreases?” Because we all know that the color white, which reflects light, and in this case limited to the roof of a house, will ultimately decrease the solar activity for plants and people right? Poor plants and us :(, the sun is going to get angry with us and stop giving us light. Bummer…

  4. You need to step away from Milloy’s comment and think about what it will do for you and your home. Where I live in California I need the winter Sun to warm my house. if I am required to have a reflective roof my winter heating bill will be much higher then it is now. Maybe this law should be by climate zone in my state not one home fits all approach. I have no problem with more energy efficient homes, but let the consumer decide what they can afford. I citizens can not afford the new roofs, who is going to pay for it?

  5. Brian,

    In CA, the “heating penalty” for a cool roof is close to zero.

    I’ve been working in this area now for about 10 years. People are very suspicious of reflective roofing for some reason–it’s a little hard to understand why.

    For the longest time, we didn’t insulate houses in CA. The only way that we ended up with universal requirements for insulation was to require it in the building code. That’s really the reason we need to do the same with roofing. Today you would never think of not insulating your house.

    It sounds great to say, “let the consumers decide,” but if we let consumers decide, we wouldn’t have seat belts in cars (for example)–consumers would be persuaded by industry (Detroit in this case, and we know how far-sighted they are) that “it might be a good idea, but we cannot afford it. We will sell fewer cars and that will cause job losses.” Of course, that’s complete BS, but that was the argument at the time. In reality, as soon as seatbelts became the base case, the incremental cost of providing them became very small in relation to the cost of the car and miniscule compared to the total cost (i.e., the avoided cost of far more injuries and fatalities in accidents that otherwise would have occurred).

    Unlike the case with seatbelts, the incremental cost of a white roof really is close to zero if it is handled by building code. For some roofing types, there’s an incremental cost today for cool roofs, but that’s more related to the cool roofing being a specialty item than it is to any actual manufacturing cost premium, which is on the order of $50 per typical household roof, max.

    The problem with “let consumers decide” for items like this is that advancements in technology remain frozen as “specialty items”–that keeps the cost high. If insulation were optional in housing, it would be enormously expensive. If it becomes standard practice, industry gets very efficient at providing it. The same will be true of cool roofs.

    Peter Turnbull

    P.S. No one advocates tearing off a perfectly good roof and replacing it. The requirement would be at the time of replacement.

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About Cara

Cara Horowitz

Cara Horowitz is the co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. The Emmett Institute was founded as the f…

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