2019 is the Year of Energy Codes

If there’s a defining theme for the building sector in 2019, it’s energy codes. Actions to update the rules that cities and states set to determine how effectively new residential and commercial buildings use energy are progressing on several fronts across the U.S. These regulations define the next generation of building design and construction in terms of energy performance and since those projects will be in operation for decades, performance matters a great deal—now more than ever. You see, 2018 culminated with a preponderance of evidence that climate change is real and the time for action is immediate.  Natural disasters are wreaking havoc across the globe and new reports sound the alarm for governments to do more to limit temperature rise.

While improving the efficiency of energy codes has been the purview of advocacy groups for decades, the growing pressure to address climate change has put a spotlight on codes as a critical lever for states and cities when trying to cut carbon emissions that are fueling climate change. Buildings account for roughly 40% of the energy used in the United States and over one-third of carbon emissions. Without addressing the building stock, climate action and energy policy goals are simply not achievable. The good news is that substantive improvements in building energy codes are attainable in the near term.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times cites challenges with gaining acceptance for a carbon tax or other penalties for people or corporations that pollute. But “building codes with strict energy requirements, vigorously enforced” are the solution, writes Justin Gillis, a former environmental reporter and opinion contributor to the Times. “Yes, I know they seem boring . . . they could hardly be more important,” he adds. We at NBI agree, and in 2019 there will be a convergence of activities around energy codes that will make or break our ability to reduce the amount of carbon emitted by buildings in this next crucial decade.

2021 International Energy Conservation Code

First, is the three-year update of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), a national model energy code that many cities and states use as the basis for local adoption, that is under development in 2019 culminating with a final vote by International Code Council members in the fall. The ASHRAE 90.1-2019, another national model energy code, will be released this year and those latest upgrades can track into the 2021 IECC process.

All told, NBI and partners are seeking a 10-15% energy efficiency improvement in the IECC for residential and commerical structures, but the road is long with many hurdles. The payoff, however, would be huge. In the 2012 IECC, NBI was part of a coalition that helped realize gains that by 2030 will reduce emissions equivalent to closing 44 coal plants and cutting energy costs by $24 billion.

States and Cities Adopting Stretch Codes

Secondly, if last year’s trend continues, 2019 will see growth in the number of states and cities that leapfrog the national energy code model and advance local regulations well beyond the minimum standards. Led by California, Washington, Vermont and New York as well as cities such as Boulder, the District of Columbia, and Scottsdale, jurisdictions are developing and adopting stringencies that are significantly better than the best that either the IECC or 90.1 has to offer. Most notably, with the 2019 Title 24, California’s statewide energy code, going into force, local governments in the state are working to develop and implement stretch codes that are even more stringent. And this year, efforts are already underway to make the 2022 Title 24 commercial building code one of the most advanced in the country.

These codes utilize high efficiency measures in lighting, heating and cooling, and envelope to maximize reductions of energy needed to power the building.  The most impactful advanced measures for commercial buildings are spelled out in two recent guidance documents developed by NBI. The 20% Stretch Energy Code Provisions and soon-to-be-released Stretch Energy Standard define a path to 20% and 40% efficiency increases above conventional practices. These publications offer states and cities the technical basis for improving local energy codes.

To ensure lasting efficiency, operations and occupant behavior initiatives are needed to maintain energy performance long after the design and construction teams go home. Some policy leaders are looking at options for an outcome-based compliance path where buildings use actual energy bills to prove their intended performance rather than prescriptive standards or predictive modeling, which don’t always translate into actual lower energy use.

Innovation in code development has become a vitally effective strategy to transform the way we approach design and construction of buildings. NBI is encouraging energy code developers to roadmap their progress by planning ahead two or three code cycles—typically each cycle is three years—giving the market visibility into what comes next and working toward long-term energy and carbon reduction goals. States that want to track progress have a new tool called the zEPI Jurisdictional Score, which ranks how well they are doing in comparison to other states all the way to achieving a “zero energy code.” In the 2018 scores, Michigan, Massachusetts and California ranked top in their efforts, but other states including Idaho, Florida and Wisconsin saw improvements in their scores based on new code adoptions.

Energy codes approaching zero

Finally, we expect to see greater exploration of zero energy and zero carbon codes in 2019 as some states and cities press forward on decarbonization and electrification strategies. California’s Title 24-2019 will be the first state code in the nation to require solar panels and nearly net zero levels of energy consumption in all new homes. Bob Raymer, of the California Building Industry Association, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “Adoption of these standards represents a quantum leap in the statewide building standards. You can bet every one of the other 49 states will be watching what happens.”

At NBI we believe models for zero energy codes should emphasize ultra-low energy use intensities (EUIs) on par with the current inventory of verified zero energy buildings, which show a median EUI of 18 (lower numbers mean lower energy use). Zero codes requiring only current 90.1 and IECC standards of construction fall short because they deliver EUIs more than double that of typical ZE buildings, and shouldn’t be considered an end point on getting to zero.

While still nascent, some aspects of what constitutes a zero energy/zero carbon code have already become clear. We will likely see more energy/carbon targets and performance ratings, rather than lists of detailed prescriptive specifications. Requirements for integrating solar energy and electric vehicle infrastructure into the building will become mandatory. (Look to NBI and the U.S. Green Building Council’s GridOptimal Buildings Initiative to define a metric and standard for building-grid harmonization and reduced carbon emissions.) And, building operators and occupants will be critical players as we seek persistence in building energy performance—a role operators are well positioned for but will require continuing workforce training.

Are energy codes boring? Perhaps, but they have emerged as a nerdy hero we need right now to address the spreading impacts of climate change. Elevating the role of energy codes is possible and imperative as the window of opportunity is closing rapidly. If we step up to the opportunities presented during this 2019 Year of Energy Codes, we will look back on this time as a sea change in the transformation to a low-energy, carbon-neutral built environment for the future. Here’s to 2019!

by Ralph DiNola, CEO, New Buildings Institute