Using Passive House to fast-track building electrification

This guest blog was written by Bronwyn Barry, CPHD, board member of the North American Passive House Network and NBI Senior Fellow.

A growing body of research tells us achieving deep carbon reduction targets of 75% or more will require electrification, including all furnaces and water heaters across the country, and powering those buildings with 100% renewable energy. Nationally, approximately 27% of the total natural gas consumption occurs directly in residential and commercial buildings.

This has led policymakers in many U.S. jurisdictions to consider building electrification policies and incentives as a way to meet climate goals. And with research suggesting fossil fuel burning appliances such as gas stoves and ovens release nitrogen oxides and particulates, building electrification is also a way to reduce serious health risks such as asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart disease in American neighborhoods.

As of this writing, more than 70 cities across the U.S. have building decarbonization policies. In December 2021, New York City banned the use of gas and fossil fuels in new buildings. The decision by lawmakers was significant: Not only is New York the largest city in the United States; it’s also a cold climate that relies heavily on natural gas for heating. If New York can prove that this can be done, other cities will have confidence to follow.

However, gas bans are not popular in all places. Currently, 20 mostly Republican states have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from banning utility gas usage in local buildings. As we’re seeing play out in many states, gas bans will become increasingly difficult to accomplish.

For municipalities who see electrification as key to achieving climate action goals, what options do they have when gas bans are banned? In these cases, municipalities should consider ‘carrot’ approaches. These include stretch building codes, outcome-based voluntary programs, and a wide array of incentives, which can all rapidly accelerate electrification even in states where local gas bans are no longer allowed.

Beyond gas bans: Using building codes to accelerate electrification

Stretch codes have proven to be one of the most impactful opportunities for local governments to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. In contrast to model energy codes, which help us achieve incremental energy efficiency improvements in buildings over time, stretch codes and outcomes-based voluntary standards can accelerate reductions in energy and carbon emission.

In jurisdictions where gas bans are illegal or not popular, city and state policymakers could choose to use voluntary standards, such as international Passive House standards, to encourage all-electric building design and construction and achieve the energy efficiency we need to address climate change.

In fact, some jurisdictions have already written Passive House certification into codes as an acceptable alternative stretch code compliance pathway. Three states — MassachusettsNew York and Washington State — as well as the city of Denver have already incorporated Passive House design pathways into their building codes and policies as a way to achieve deep energy and carbon savings. Other options include combining the Passive House standard with certification programs such as LEED and the Living Building Challenge. Established “crosswalks” between these three organizations allow policymakers to require Passive House to be used to meet LEED’s energy compliance points or ILFI’s energy petal.

And yet another, more limited path would be to include Passive House target requirements for public building projects. For example, New York City required Passive House certification for its 700-unit Sendero Verde affordable housing development in Harlem. And last year Pittsburgh required EnerPHit—the Passive House standard for retrofits—be applied to two city-owned building renovations.

Some states subsidize Passive House training (NYSERDA, MASS Save, CT, 3C-REN), provide tax credits for Passive House certified buildings (Pennsylvania affordable housing tax credit program), or offer direct financial subsidies — either through government (NYSERDA, Mass Saves) or the local utility (PG&E, Southern California Edison).

Changes to the Passive House standard support electrification

Just as policy is driving building electrification, it’s also driving the transition toward a carbon-free grid—both of which are necessary to limit global temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and avoid the most serious climate risks. Over 180 cities, more than 10 counties, and eight states across the U.S. have goals to power their communities with 100% renewable energy.

To support these goals, the International Passive House Institute in 2015 made significant changes to the Passive House framework. There are now three certification levels: Classic, Plus, and Premium certification, all of which incent and credit renewable energy production.

This new framework marked a shift to carbon emission reductions, not just energy use reductions, and includes a CO2 equivalent emissions measurement. The standard offers more flexibility for how people choose to “level up” (i.e., you can either reduce your demand or you can increase your on-site renewable energy generation). At a high level, the standard encourages people to: 1.) lower energy demand, 2.) prioritize renewable source energy, 3.) install onsite renewable energy generation, and 4.) allows credit for offsite generation—although only for Premium certification.

All of the new Passive House standards now calculate primary energy using primary energy renewable (PER) factors. These specifically penalize gas-fueled mechanical systems and favor heat pumps and other electric-powered options. They are designed to reflect a local and regional all-renewable grid supply and create either incentives, or disincentives, for installing various types of mechanical equipment in Passive House buildings.

Find what works and get started

While states like New York and California and cities like New York City and Denver are recognized as climate leaders, all jurisdictions have the power to choose the best climate solutions for their community. Using gas bans as a way to reduce emissions and improve public health is increasingly difficult. Considering options such as stretch codes and standards such as the Passive House to create ultra energy efficient, all-electric buildings is an alternative way that jurisdictions can encourage building electrification while supporting a 100% renewable future grid.

Top Photo: West Berkeley Public Library, Berkeley, CA

by Bronwyn Barry, CPHD, North American Passive House Network, and NBI Senior Fellow