Code Officials: Here’s Your Chance to Be a Climate Hero

NRDC is joining a few hundred code officials, sustainability office representatives, builders, efficiency advocates, and others in Las Vegas this week for the International Code Council’s annual conference and public comment hearings. While we won’t have much time to hit up the sights and sounds of Vegas, we’ll be hard at work on something just as exciting to us: improving the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to combat climate change.

Jessica Russo, NRDC

Skeptical? Consider that buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, and once built, they last a long time—60 to 100 years or more. To solve the climate crisis, we need buildings to use far less energy and be powered by clean, renewable power. An updated, improved building code is a commonsense way to address this issue in new buildings.

Why? Because the building energy code is the law! The process we're in right now happens every three years to develop the nation's model energy code, which is then independently adopted by local jurisdictions. Once adopted by a state or local government, builders are required to follow the various building codes, which lay out the requirements for energy efficiency as well as components like plumbing, electrical, and mechanical systems. As the chart shows, the impact has been immense. A home built to the latest code uses about half the energy one built in 1975, and there are still far more savings to be had. Over the last few code cycles, including the the most recent (the 2018 code), there has been little progress and energy savings have remained flat. More efficiency means less wasted energy, which in turn means fewer harmful, planet-warming emissions from power plants generating that energy—and better comfort and health for building inhabitants.

At this week’s meetings, we’ll be discussing proposals that will both increase the energy efficiency of the code, but also, sadly, some that decrease it. These public comment hearings (which run from October 23-30, with a schedule found here) are the next step in a process that began back in January, when NRDC and others submitted proposals. We met in the spring in Albuquerque, where a technical committee debated the pros and cons of hundreds of proposals related to residential and commercial building energy use. We’ve now had a chance to revise and revisit some of those proposals, and the meetings in Las Vegas will include the participation of ICC governmental voting members—the code officials, sustainability experts, and other government employees who ultimately get to decide what goes in the code. Those in the room will vote on the proposals in real time while those unable to attend will have their say through an online voting process, which opens about two weeks after the hearings conclude. Don’t worry: if you’re a governmental official that can’t make it Vegas in person, there will still be lots of opportunity to make your voice heard!

Many local governments have committed to aggressive climate-related goals within the last few years. Nearly 300 cities and counties, across all 50 states, have signed the “We Are Still In” pledge, committing to the emissions reductions goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Voting for proposals that reduce carbon emissions AND energy use gives government officials the power to do something about climate change—making them the heroes we need right now.

Jessica Russo, NRDC

Here is a look at a few of the most important proposals for governmental officials to weigh in on, either in the Las Vegas hearing room or online. Note that this list is not exhaustive! The Energy Efficiency Codes Coalition (EECC) has put together comprehensive voting guides to help code officials follow along at the hearings, for residential and commercial proposals. Once online voting is open, there also will be updated voting guides found here.  

Zero-Energy Buildings (RE223)

This is an exciting one! NRDC and the New Buildings Institute collaborated on an innovative proposal to create a new, optional appendix for local code adoption that would result in residential buildings which, over the course of a year, would produce as much energy as they consume. This would be achieved through a mix of aggressive, yet achievable, levels of energy efficiency combined with renewable energy like rooftop solar panels. While this proposal had robust support from the efficiency community, code officials, the solar industry, manufacturers, and others, it failed the technical committee by one vote in the spring. But we’ve made some important changes through the public comment process to address the concerns raised by a few committee members, including allowing credit for community renewable energy, leasing, and purchasing agreements. Having a ready-made option to adopt clear code language that will require zero-energy use in new homes is critical to making them more energy efficient in a way that can be consistent across jurisdictions, easing the path for builders, code officials, and homebuyers.

Electrification Readiness (RE147)

Direct fossil fuel use in buildings, like in gas-powered water heaters or dryers, is responsible for a whopping 10 percent of total US carbon emissions. Electrification of buildings and vehicles—with increasingly clean electricity generated from renewable, no-emissions resources—is one of the key policy solutions for tackling climate change, and in new buildings, electrification readiness can be done at a very small incremental cost (compared to a potentially very high cost to electrify later, if the proper infrastructure isn’t in place). That’s exactly what NRDC’s electrification readiness proposal does: homes built with natural gas appliances and equipment would be required to have the appropriate electrical infrastructure to support future electric versions. It’s common sense to prepare new homes for a low-carbon future with this simple, low-cost investment. The proposal is modeled on a reach code ordinance already in place in San Jose, CA, which is also being considered in Washington state and elsewhere throughout the country.

Electric Vehicles (RE147; CE217 Parts I and II)

Likewise, electric vehicles are growing in popularity: Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that electric vehicles (EVs) will account for more than half of all new light-duty vehicles by 2040. And all those clean cars need places to charge. Like the electrification readiness proposal, the EV proposals will require a new home (or multifamily building or commercial building) to make a certain percentage of its parking spaces ready for electric vehicles by including electrical infrastructure. Given a building’s long lifetime, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be an even higher demand for EV charging within the next few years. Such ordinances have already been in place for years in cities like New York, Atlanta, and Fort Collins, CO, and we’re working with other cities through the American Cities Climate Challenge to pass similar legislation. Adopting this into the model code fits squarely into the policies necessary to advance electric vehicle adoption and infrastructure.

Lighting Efficiency (RE7, RE145)

One lighting efficiency proposal, RE7, was approved by the technical committee, which means it will become part of the code if a simple majority of governmental voting officials vote for it. That’s great news, and we support this proposal as submitted. Another lighting-related proposal, RE145, nicely complements RE7. A proposed modification would require at least one permanently installed lighting fixture in bathrooms, garages, utility rooms, and laundry rooms to be controlled by an occupancy sensor, which will avoid wasting energy.

Flexible Code Improvements (RE206, RE207, RE209; RE208)

There are a number of proposals to flexibly improve the efficiency of the code by requiring builders to choose a few additional efficiency measures. They are, ranked from the most to least stringent:

RE207 – 10% Flex Points Improvement

This proposal improves the IECC’s overall efficiency by 10 percent, by requiring a builder to select 10 “flex points” from a table of additional efficiency measures. However, a proposed modification being considered at this week’s Public Comment Hearings would require only a 5 percent improvement, while also allowing limited compliance via renewable energy. We prefer the unmodified proposal because it would require a bigger improvement to the code, but also support the public comment. A builder could comply by choosing to improve the efficiency of insulation, windows, heating and cooling system efficiency, or water heater system efficiency. The improvement is required in all compliance three paths of the residential code (the prescriptive, performance, and Energy Rating Index pathways).

RE206 – 5% Flex Points Improvement

This proposal is identical to RE207, except that it requires a 5 percent improvement (i.e., 5 points) rather than a 10 percent improvement.

RE209 – 5% Efficiency Package Improvement

This proposal would have the same end result as RE 206—a 5 percent improvement across all paths of the code – but with a slightly different structure. Rather than choosing from a list of improvements, a builder would select from a package of improvements, focused on either enhanced building envelope, more efficient HVAC equipment performance, reduced energy use in water heating, more efficient duct thermal distribution, or improved air sealing and efficient ventilation. It mirrors the structure of a section of the current commercial code, which requires additional efficiency through a package of improvements. Builders still can choose which type of improvement will work best for the home being constructed.

RE 208 – 3% Builder Flex Point Improvement

We were glad to see a proposal from the Leading Builders of America improving the energy efficiency of the code, as it recognizes the need to advance it. However, RE208 is lacking when compared to RE207, RE206, or RE209. As originally proposed, RE208 allowed for equipment tradeoffs, which are a nonstarter and have been voted down by governmental voters since tradeoffs were removed from the code in 2006. Tradeoffs would allow for massive free ridership by giving credit for any equipment efficiency above the federal minimum standard (and in many places, 90 percent or more of the equipment being installed already exceeds federal minimums). Thankfully, there is a proposed Public Comment from the Leading Builders that reverses course and removes this harmful provision. But even so, RE208 still wouldn’t go far enough because:

  • The code needs more than a 3 percent improvement—and across all paths (this proposal does not apply to the Energy Rating Index path).
  • The proposal could give builders credit for things they’re already doing or will likely be required to do as part of the 2021 IECC. For example, the proposal would give 2.5 points in any climate zone for using LED bulbs in 95 percent of lighting. However, RE7, would require 90 percent of lighting to have efficiency equivalent to an LED bulb. Providing 2.5 points (out of a necessary 3) to install just a few more LED bulbs doesn’t make a lot of sense.

There are lots more great proposals we’ll be talking about in Las Vegas—and some not-so-great ones, too. Want to know more? Tune in to the webcast to follow along! And be sure to watch for more blogs and information from us in the coming weeks. Making the code as strong and efficient as we can is crucial in the fight against climate change. Let’s hope building officials are climate heroes and support a better code!   

About the Authors

Lauren Urbanek

Senior Energy Policy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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