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"Building a more sustainable energy future / Constuyendo un futuro energético más sostenible" by Repsol is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


Why Resilient & Efficient US Building Energy Codes Are Important

The first installment of a 5-year, $225 million US program to support building energy code adoption, training, and technical assistance at the state and local level is beginning.

We’ve known for a long time that building energy codes make a real difference.

In 1978, California adopted building codes designed to reduce the energy used for temperature control. Using a rich data set of hourly electricity consumption for 158,112 houses in Sacramento, research indicates that the average house built just after 1978 uses 8% to 13% less electricity for cooling than a similar house built just before 1978.

More recently, energy consumption by building sector has taken on heightened concern and is considered higher now than the transportation sector. Since 2010, fossil fuel consumption by building sector increased at an average growth rate of 0.7%, increasing the CO2 emission directly from buildings by 5%. According to the IEA, the building sector globally consumed 36% of total energy and emitted 39% of CO2 in 2018.

Conventional energy confers a certain finiteness on traditional buildings. Most buildings today use a lot of energy — to keep the lights on, cool the air, heat water, and power personal devices. Conversely, Zero Energy Buildings (ZEB) seem to be a vision from the future rather than a contemporary feasibility. Yet, advancements in residential net-zero energy buildings can significantly reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. ZEB design considerations broadly categorize into energy infrastructure connections, renewable energy sources, and energy efficiency measures.

For example, California has required all new residential buildings to meet near-net zero energy building targets in its building energy efficiency standards since January 2020. Across all 16 California climate zones, optimal designs of near-NZEB single family homes have lower lifecycle costs for both all-electric and mixed-fuel cases in all California climate zones than the 2020 baseline code compliant homes.

A confluence of energy drivers, standards, regional policies, technology adoption methods, and a formidable adoption ratio to accurately determine the energy performance of ZEBs. The 2021 IECC includes Zero Code appendices for both residential and commercial buildings. The residential Zero Code appendix is based on the Energy Rating Index (ERI) path of the code. It requires more efficiency than is required in the base code and requires enough onsite or offsite renewable energy production to achieve an ERI score of zero. Renewable energy compliance may happen through a combination of onsite power production, energy generated through community renewable energy facilities, and renewable energy purchase contracts or leases.

Energy efficiency is considered a key measure to reduce household energy consumption, but several factors could lead to an underinvestment in energy efficiency. This is the so-called energy efficiency gap or paradox. The factors in question are grouped under market failures (including informational failures), behavioral failures and other factors. Various policies can be used to address these failures and promote the adoption of energy efficient technologies, including energy standards and codes, economic incentives and information instruments.

Recognizing the importance of building energy codes, the Biden–Harris administration announced this week $45 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to support resilient and efficient building energy codes. The funding will support state and local adoption and implementation of building energy codes to dramatically cut carbon emissions, generate up to $138 billion in savings for homes and businesses, and improve health and safety.

According to a White House press release, this funding is the first installment of a 5-year, $225 million program to support building energy code adoption, training, and technical assistance at the state and local level. The administration is intent on modernizing the nation’s building codes as a crucial step to driving the development of more energy efficient commercial and residential buildings.

It is also a key component of DOE’s efforts to address the climate crisis and meet President Biden’s goal of a 100% clean electrical grid by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Building codes continue to be one of the most critical tools we have to improve energy efficiency and resilience in homes and businesses, which together account for more than one third of emissions across the country,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “Thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, this transformative investment will help more states bring their energy codes into the 21st Century — putting money back into the pockets of Americans everywhere while substantially cutting carbon emissions and tackling the climate crisis.”

The Function of Building Energy Codes

Building energy codes establish minimum acceptable energy efficiency standards for new buildings, additions, and major renovations in residential and commercial buildings. Successfully implementing and adopting updated building codes can substantially improve energy efficiency, save consumers energy and money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The DOE estimates that, by 2040, these modern energy codes would save homes and businesses $138 billion on their utility bills — equivalent to $162 in annual savings per residential unit. By preventing 900 million metric tons of carbon emissions through 2040, the climate benefits will be the equivalent of taking 195 million gas-powered vehicles off the road for a year.

The energy code is a critical component of the broader collection of building codes, which include provisions for fire, structural, mechanical, and plumbing systems that save lives, reduce property damage, and lower utility bills. Despite these benefits, two out of every three communities in the US have not adopted the latest building codes. These DOE’s actions can spur nationwide code adoption, which supports the Biden–Harris Administration’s National Initiative to Advance Building Codes, which the National Climate Task Force unveiled in June 2022 to boost energy efficiency and make communities more resilient to hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, and other extreme weather events that climate change is intensifying.

The conservation of energy without jeopardizing human comfort is a huge challenge for any designer. If you think your organization might be eligible for some of this building energy funding, you may now apply for the first $45 million disbursement of the Resilient and Efficient Codes Implementation Program, which was announced earlier this year in a Notice of Intent and shaped by responses to a Request for Information. Applicants must include a state agency to be eligible, and they may apply in strategic partnership with other organizations, such as state or local building departments, builders, contractors, architects, engineers, other design and construction professionals, academia, research, trade organizations, consumer advocates, regional energy efficiency organizations, and other stakeholder interests who play an important role supporting the successful implementation of building codes.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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