2019 was the Year of Energy Codes and a Big Year for Efficiency

At the beginning of last year, we predicted that 2019 would be a big year for building energy codes, and the results are extremely promising for states—and cities which control their own energy codes–that are working to achieve climate action goals.

Across the nation, from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Green New Deal to San José’s pursuit of all-electric buildings to hundreds of people taking the time to vote on the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) update, leading jurisdictions are turning to energy codes as an effective tool for mitigating climate change. With buildings accounting for 39% of carbon emissions in the United States, it’s clear that without addressing the building stock, climate action and energy policy goals are simply not achievable.

2021 IECC improves an estimated 10% or more

The IECC is one of the biggest opportunities to influence the energy efficiency of new buildings and reduce carbon emissions from building operations. Updated every three years through an online vote of eligible voters, the IECC is the model code that’s adopted by many U.S. states.

In November, local leaders around the country—including building code officials, city and county administrators, elected officials and sustainability directors—exercised their right to vote and chose to dramatically improve building efficiency. As 2019 came to a close, preliminary voting results on the 2021 IECC made it clear that cities and states want higher performing buildings as a way to reduce operating costs, improve the health of building occupants and address climate change. These results showed that the 2021 IECC will bring at least 10% better efficiency for decades to come for both residential and commercial buildings that follow the IECC.

Extensive outreach and education by a broad coalition of partners, including New Building Institute (NBI), the Energy Efficiency Codes Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Institute for Market Transformation, Alliance to Save Energy, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), and others, was instrumental in raising awareness about the importance of the vote and its potential to help cities and states make significant progress toward their energy- and carbon-saving goals.

States and cities continue to adopt stretch codes

A growing number of cities and states are even choosing to go beyond national energy model codes such as the IECC. They are doing this by creating local “stretch codes” (also called “reach codes”). By adopting forward-looking stretch energy codes that go well beyond the national model codes for newly constructed buildings, cities and states are accelerating building energy performance and slashing carbon emissions from the built environment. Some key examples from the past year:

  • In September 2019, San José, via a unanimous city council vote, became the largest city in the United States to adopt electrification requirements for new construction. The city’s new reach code ordinance encourages electrification through requiring higher levels of efficiency and electrification-readiness in mixed-fuel buildings, requires solar-readiness on all non-residential buildings, and the installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure such as EV chargers, EV-ready spaces and EV-capable spaces. San José has also gone a step further by introducing a gas infrastructure ban for all new low-rise residential buildings, including single-family homes, detached accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and low-rise multifamily.
  • In New York, Governor Cuomo introduced a Green New Deal in January 2019 that mandated New York to become carbon-neutral across different economic sectors by 2040. The state took a big leap toward that goal with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s (NYSERDA) development of NYStretch Energy Code – 2020 (NYStretch), an above-code standard that each New York municipality can choose to adopt and that is on New York’s path to a net zero energy code in the next decade. Cost and savings analyses demonstrate that NYStretch will be 10%-12% more efficient than the soon-to-be-updated New York state minimum energy code, according to NYSERDA.
  • In 2019, a wave of electrification reach codes swept across California with 50 communities declaring their intention to move forward with electrification codes and policies. By the end of 2019, 23 cities had adopted or planned for reach codes.

Energy codes and policy approaching zero

Some jurisdictions are deciding to reduce buildings’ carbon impacts even faster and are moving more rapidly to zero energy and zero carbon codes to drastically improve energy outcomes for buildings. Zero energy buildings are highly energy efficient and consume only as much energy as can be generated with clean, renewable resources (such as solar panels).

  • California Title 24-2019, which went into effect this month, will require the highest level of energy efficiency in California to date. The standards cut energy use in new homes by more than 50% while requiring the installation of rooftop solar panels or procuring another renewable energy source. All new single-family and low-rise multi-family homes will need to include a Title 24 report showing zero net electricity use. Title 24-2019 will ensure that builders of new homes and multifamily units are motivated to seek energy-saving measures as a way to reduce the size of the building’s renewable energy requirement.
  • The City of Pittsburgh adopted a net-zero energy ready policy for its municipal buildings, seeing it as a necessary means to uphold its commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. A net-zero energy ready standard (as opposed to a net-zero energy standard) focuses on building energy performance while allowing buildings that do not have space for large on-site renewable energy systems to contribute to the city’s energy use reduction targets.
  • The Massachusetts legislature drafted two bills (H.2865 and S.1935) in 2019 to establish a net-zero energy stretch code. If approved, the legislation could become one of the first zero energy stretch codes in the nation.

Most notable, the 2021 IECC also got into the zero energy game by including zero energy model code appendices for both residential and commercial buildings. These appendices will be an invaluable resource for states and cities that control their own code, giving them the option to adopt them as local requirements. This is highly significant because appendices are often ultimately adopted in future versions of the IECC and send market signals of what’s to come.

The Zero Energy Residential Appendix, which was co-developed by NBI and NRDC, provides zero energy code language that requires a mix of achievable levels of energy efficiency combined with renewable energy, such as rooftop solar panels or community solar. In the commercial energy code, the Zero Code, developed by Architecture 2030, was also adopted as a pathway to achieve zero energy. It sets renewable requirements to meet the building’s predicted energy use.

A roadmap for achieving zero carbon goals

As we look toward 2020 and beyond, we understand that advancements in energy codes alone will not address the climate emergency that is bearing down on us with intense urgency. We must ensure the energy savings measures we pursue through energy codes can be measured in both kilowatt-hour savings as well as carbon reductions.

For an industry focused on kilowatt-hour savings in the last three decades, this new way of framing “energy savings” in terms of carbon reductions reflects recent policy objectives. Forward-thinking states and cities are setting the stage for what’s to come — from 100% clean fuel requirements for new buildings to voluntary actions to measure the embodied carbon of materials used in buildings. During the past 30+ years, energy codes have played an important role in helping states and cities create economic and environmental benefits for owners, tenants, and residents. We expect the next decade to be the most transformative yet so that all new buildings constructed in the U.S. will be carbon neutral by 2030—this is a critical objective for limiting planetary warming to anything close to 1.5 degrees ℃.

by Jim Edelson, Director of Policy