Changes to Energy Code Process Strip Power from Local Voters

The development of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) will move from a procedure driven by the votes of thousands of local governmental members, to one that relies on decision-making by a committee.

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The organization that administers the process for developing the national model building energy code for new homes and other buildings used by cities and towns nationwide has decided to make substantial changes to how it is created—abandoning a procedure driven by the votes of thousands of local governmental members who administer the code to one that relies on decision-making by a committee. This could have a substantial impact on the amount of energy efficiency required in future energy codes, which are a major tool in the fight against climate change.

Last week’s move by the International Code Council’s (ICC) Board of Directors essentially strips local governments that administer the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) code of their power to have the final say over what is included in it–which is extremely troubling, given that these same members recently voted in droves to make our homes and other buildings more efficient and climate-friendly.

The ICC contends the process change will ultimately be a better way to meet the needs of local governments that administer the codes and help them address their climate targets–but whether that plays out depends entirely on how the ICC executes its new framework.

Many unanswered questions remain—including why the process change was necessary, details about committee makeup and membership, and whether the change will result in a code that truly makes meaningful improvements or one that just stagnates. The onus is now on the ICC to earn the trust of its members and prove that this change will be beneficial to their interests and the interests of the nation and world.

What’s Changing

The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) has long been developed through the ICC’s code process, which has allowed for broad public participation and puts final decisions in the hands of governmental voting members. These local and state government officials showed up in a big way to develop the 2021 IECC, with voter turnout at its highest-ever level–and the result was the most efficient and progressive energy code to date. Friday’s announcement marks a dramatic shift– directly disenfranchising hundreds of local governments that weighed in to oppose the change in ICC process, as well as stakeholders who recognize the importance of improving the code to cut energy consumption and its associated climate emissions.

Starting with the next code, which becomes effective in 2024, instead of governmental members voting to determine whether energy improvement proposals become part of the final code, a committee chosen by the ICC board will decide. We don’t yet know how this change will play out in terms of requiring more energy efficiency in future codes, but we’re deeply disappointed that voter voices are being silenced. Making the process less democratic is a huge risk at a time when it’s so crucial to rapidly improve the efficiency and dramatically reduce the emissions of our nation’s buildings–especially since buildings constructed today will still be in use 50 to 100 years from now.

It’s never been clear to us why ICC felt such a change was necessary, especially given the governmental members’ enthusiasm in participating in the process and the excellent result achieved for the 2021 code cycle that made the new code the most energy efficient one ever. A major change in process usually comes about because of a recent outcome being deemed unacceptable. But the 2021 energy code process was widely heralded as huge climate win by governmental members, efficiency advocates, and others. Only a handful of industry groups saw the substantial efficiency gains as a threat, and those same groups were the ones supporting this process change. As efficiency proponents, that gives us and others (including leading stakeholders like the American Institute of Architects, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the Institute for Market Transformation, and the New Buildings Institute) pause.

Efficiency gains in the code have always been driven by pressure from state and local officials committed to sustainability and climate goals. While governmental member participation will look different under this new process, input from these crucial stakeholders is more important than ever before. ICC insists this change will support what its members want – and so it’s critically important that ICC shows through its actions that it’s listening and working with the best interests of governmental members in mind.

Some Improvement, But Will It Be Enough?

The materials released from the ICC position the new process as a way to develop “a portfolio of advanced mitigation solutions to battle the impacts of our changing climate, ” with a goal to “help communities address their energy efficiency and climate mitigation goals.” This certainly sounds like a positive development, as are updates to the scope and intent of the code. We’re glad to see that the ICC is clear that the code should increase in stringency with each cycle and may not be made less efficient, as well as a commitment to considering lifecycle cost effectiveness, which considers the cost compared to the amount of energy saved. It’s also good that the code will be developed with tools to allow for zero-energy buildings, electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the new building, transitioning from gas to electric appliances, and embodied carbon in building materials. However, it is not clear that this structure will be strong enough to ensure the kind of progress we need.

We are particularly concerned that the most innovative measures to directly target greenhouse gas emissions from buildings will seemingly be considered as voluntary supplements to the model code, not core, mandatory components. The ICC’s framework outlines a “layered approach that provides communities with a menu of technical and policy resources,” which could include resources to promote electric vehicles, electrification and decarbonization, zero energy and zero carbon, addressing embodied carbon, grid interactivity, performance standards for existing buildings, enhanced water efficiency, and integration of on-site renewable energy generation and energy storage.

To be clear, these may potentially be excellent resources for local governments–but the problem is that they apparently will not be included as part of the basic energy code. By cordoning them off as optional measures, the ICC all but declares that they are not ready for universal adoption. We know that we must swiftly address the energy and carbon emissions of our new buildings in order to have any chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and that means ALL new buildings, not just those in a scattering of jurisdictions willing to consider and evaluate these “extra” options. Not including these as fundamental components of the minimum base code makes the type of progress we need substantially more difficult.

In the meantime, there are already excellent resources for communities looking to go further than the minimum energy code today. The New Buildings Institute, in partnership with NRDC, recently released a new Building Decarbonization Code that is an overlay to the 2021 IECC to achieve carbon neutral performance in both residential and commercial new buildings.

Committee Makeup is the First Key Step

The first test of ICC’s commitment to developing a code that “result(s) in the maximum level of energy efficiency that is safe, technologically feasible, and life cycle cost effective” will be how it handles the makeup of the Residential and Commercial Code Consensus Committees and the new Energy and Carbon Advisory Council. One-third of the seats on the residential and commercial committees will be reserved for government officials, the only such group with a dedicated number of seats. While it’s good that government officials will have a voice, their overall impact will pale in comparison to the previous code development process, which gave every governmental voting member–and only governmental members–an individual vote on each proposed change. Going from having the final say, to one-third of the spots on a small committee, is fundamentally not a win for governmental members, regardless of the code’s technical outcome.

Under this new process, other stakeholders including builders, manufacturers, code users, and the public segment (which can include advocacy organizations) will also have voting representation on the committees, whereas previously they did not. To earn the trust of the membership, the ICC Board must select committee members who are dedicated to making real, substantial improvements to the code–otherwise, this is all simply lip service, not real progress.

The government officials that adopt and enforce the energy code didn’t request these changes, and largely didn’t support the process changes proposed by the ICC. ICC insists the changes will ultimately benefit jurisdictions and local and national climate goals. The ball is in the ICC’s court to prove this is the case–and we’ll be there to hold them accountable.

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