Cool Roofs Under Attack: Our Response

Posted by on July 14, 2016

On July 12, the Los Angeles Daily News published an ill-informed opinion column attacking a program that is helping Los Angeles lead in the fight against climate change. Its author, Susan Shelley, pushed her personal conservative ideology, ignoring fact. The entire column demonstrated a severe lack of rigor and research.

She begins her argument by citing a single homeowner who says her new cool roof cost her an extra $3,000; that number alone does not capture the actual costs. A single homeowner and one contractor quote is also hardly an accurate depiction of the market. Ms. Shelley overlooks the facts that 75% or more of the cost of a roofing job is for labor, that cool roofing products vary in price to the same degree as non-cool materials (often there is no added cost for cool roofs), and that added cost for cool materials is frequently covered by a well-funded and continuing rebate offered by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). We’ve seen the cost of replacing a roof vary by as much as 50% among contractors installing the exact same product, pointing to the need for homeowners to get multiple quotes to ensure the best price. What’s more, the author failed to reveal that the average homeowner with a cool roof will see 10-20% savings on their utility bill, yielding a very quick return-on-investment.

Next, Ms. Shelley moves to the science of cool roofs, and, again, fails to cite inconvenient facts. She begins by dismissing a meticulously-cited report by the Emmett Institute on Climate Change at the UCLA School of Law on widespread adoption cool roofs because it was produced by the law school and not “UCLA Physical Sciences.” She then refers to a study on cool and green roofs conducted in Chicago, disregarding the extreme differences in climate, geography, wind patterns and building stock between Chicago and LA. (I’m sure she wouldn’t chastise the city of Los Angeles for not implementing policies regarding winter snowfall, no matter how effective they’ve been in Chicago.) Ms. Shelley willfully ignores dozens of relevant studies, cherry-picking information to further her own biases. A simple Google search brings up the Department of Energy’s Heat Island page or US EPA’s page.

She also makes a wildly inaccurate claim that “the rebate for tearing out your lawn caused an urban heat island effect that now has to be fixed with a rebate for a cool roof,” demonstrating a stunning lack of understanding about the urban heat island effect and what causes it. (Hint: rising temperatures in urban areas from paved surfaces have been around LA long before people began replacing their grass with native plants en masse.) Not to mention that LA’s cool roof program was approved prior to the increase in the lawn removal rebate. So, no, one did not produce a need for the other.

Several times in the story she cites information from various sources, including UCLA, LADWP, and Climate Resolve. She never attempted to contact us or any of these sources, and in many cases misinterprets statements or simply gets information wrong, such as the fact that the program went into effect in October of 2014 not “this year.” Clearly, the author was cherry-picking information, or more precisely, picking oranges and calling them cherries. She could have picked up the phone but chose not to.

Cool roofs are, in fact, part of a comprehensive plan to lower temperatures in Los Angeles. They protect public health, save consumers money, and reduce devastating impacts of climate change. We’re disappointed that one of LA’s top news sources would publish opinion and package it as news. The story ends with Ms. Shelley admonishing government officials for their supposed lack of accountability; this story makes us question her accountability as a reporter.

Update: Two notable letters to the editor are below.

New L.A. law will have benefits through the roof
Re “LA’s ‘cool roof’ mandate removes some green from homeowners’ wallet” (Susan Shelley, July 12):
This column on Los Angeles’ cool roofs ordinance claims that it takes money out of homeowners’ wallets. This gets the story exactly backwards. Like most energy efficiency programs, this one saves money. Any initial costs are more than recouped through lower energy bills and reduced maintenance costs.

In fact, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab ranked Los Angeles second among 11 major U.S. cities in net savings that would be achieved if cool roofs were adopted citywide. These savings will increase as Los Angeles gets dramatically hotter over the coming years and decades, as my colleague Dr. Alex Hall of UCLA has shown will occur.

Plus, by lowering indoor and outdoor temperatures, cool roofs will reduce heat injuries and deaths and help prevent power blackouts during heat waves.

The cool roofs ordinance protects public health, improves our quality of life, and saves us money. — Cara Horowitz, Los Angeles

‘Cool roofs’ ordinance can save homeowners money
Re “LA’s ‘cool roof’ mandate removes some green from homeowners’ wallet” (Susan Shelley, July 12):
Susan Shelley’s column regarding L.A.’s new cool roof law really misses the mark. Research and 30-plus years of market experience in California have proven that cool roofs provide energy savings and more comfortable buildings.

The energy cost savings alone make a cool roof pencil out for most homeowners, and the deal is sweetened by a rebate from the Department of Water and Power.

Beyond the benefits to the buyer, research shows these roofs cool cities by several degrees. That means cleaner air, healthier communities, and fewer hospital visits for older and vulnerable people.

Those are not just “feel good” outcomes. They are worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the city and its residents. L.A. did the right thing by promoting this no-brainer technology, and I hope more cities follow suit. — Kurt Shickman, Washington, D.C.