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Florida Engineering Conference: PACE, Seal-Level Rise, Climate Change

Recently, I had the opportunity to present at the Florida Engineering Society’s (FES’s) Annual Conference in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. It was FES’s 100th annual conference, billed as “A Century of Innovation,” and was well-attended. My presentation was on Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, a topic about which I have posted previously (see "Many States, HVAC Contractors not Keeping PACE" and "Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE)," and was intended to inform engineers of personal and professional opportunities presented by PACE. The personal opportunities are for those engineers who own real property in Florida—either residential or commercial—to use the PACE vehicle to finance qualifying capital improvements to their own properties. The professional opportunities are for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers to perform commercial energy audits where they may be required and for structural engineers to prepare construction documents for major wind-resistance-improvement projects.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have PACE-enabling legislation. Florida’s PACE statute is unique in that it contemplates wind-resistance enhancements (hurricane hardening), such as measures to improve the strength of roof-deck attachments or reinforce roof-to-wall connections, as PACE-qualifying improvements. Because PACE funding is tied to a property and secured by a special non-ad valorem assessment on the property owner’s tax bill, it is not dependent on the creditworthiness or personal guarantees of the property owner. It is true off-book financing.

Enacted in 2010, PACE has been slow to gain traction in Florida largely because of the plethora of litigation surrounding it. The most significant of the major lawsuits—and the last to be settled—was a challenge by the Florida Bankers Association that was dismissed by the Florida Supreme Court last October. Because PACE assessments are treated as any other property tax, they are superior to mortgages, a condition that many bankers (and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) find unsettling. In July, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Administration (VA) released guidance on PACE for Federal Housing Administration- and VA-guaranteed home loans that allows those properties to participate in state PACE programs.

In addition to hurricane hardening, Florida’s PACE program allows renewable-energy installations and improvements that increase energy efficiency. Nationwide, there have been nearly 90,000 projects completed to date, the vast majority of them residential, with an economic value of more than $2 billion. Although many PACE programs also include water-conservation measures as qualifying improvements, Florida’s statue is unfortunately silent on those. Hopefully, the legislature will amend the statute to include both water conservation and flood mitigation, as coastal Florida is particularly vulnerable to flooding from storm surge and sea-level rise. Which segues nicely to the most interesting breakout session I attended at the conference.

Frank Marshall presented a session titled “Seal Level Rise and Climate Change—What to Expect in Florida in the Future.” His credentials are impressive: bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering (cum laude) from the Florida Institute of Technology, master’s and doctorate degrees in environmental engineering from the University of Central Florida, licensed professional engineer (PE) in Florida, and more than 30 years of professional experience. Marshall’s presentation discussed the effects of sea-level rise on the more than 2,000 miles of low-lying coast in Florida, much of it highly urbanized. He touched on such issues as adaptation of existing stormwater infrastructure, the higher water tables, and the greater incidence of extreme-weather events. In the past, when I’ve posted on this subject (see "When It Comes to Sea-Level Rise, Size Does Matter" and "Environmental Responsibility: It’s not Just a HVAC Issue"), I’ve received comments from engineers discounting the science of climate change and the associated increase in sea level. Perhaps those deniers will take a hint from a well-respected PE who embraces science over politics and emotion.

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