Energy Code Challenges and Opportunities

According to the Washington-based U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Electric Power Annual, U.S. residential and commercial buildings account for approximately 41 percent of all energy consumption and 72 percent of electricity usage. Building energy codes improve energy efficiency in buildings, resulting in significant cost savings in the private and public sectors of the U.S. economy. Efficient buildings reduce power demand and have less environmental impact. In particular, implementing contemporary energy-efficiency codes and standards for buildings can result in a significant improvement of fundamental environmental issues, economic challenges and uncertain future energy costs.

As it turns out, updating energy conservation, lighting and ventilation codes is commonplace, taking place every three to six years locally, and every three years nationally as is consistent with model code and standards development processes. These updates can be in response to advances in building products, technology and/or construction practices. Advanced or “stretch” energy codes arise out of policy decisions, generally at the state level, to incentivize new buildings and retrofit of existing ones that will conserve and utilize energy much more efficiently than those we construct under our “minimum” building codes. Legislators tend to want to establish examples of what can be done within reasonable budgets to achieve regional and national goals for energy security and economic sustainability. Initial targets for advances have been modest. They incorporate obvious and easily accomplished thermal-performance improvements, plus the gains in equipment and lighting efficiencies using market-available technologies constrained in national model codes.

Massachusetts Sets the Stage

The first comprehensive “stretch” code was initiated by Massachusetts with passage of its “Green Communities Act” in 2008. To date, 123 of Massachusetts’ 351 communities have chosen through local option to participate in the program. The law provides grants and other funding to communities who amend zoning to eliminate “red tape” in obtaining permits for renewable and alternative energy projects; set energy reduction goals for its buildings, vehicles, street and traffic lighting with a target date of 2018; and adopt energy efficiency and water conservation regulation for its community residences (less than 3,000 square feet) and all commercial, industrial, municipal and school buildings.

A large challenge to this ambitious program was to develop a single yardstick to regulate building construction/renovation performance that would be uniform, consistent, measurable and coordinated with all of the basic codes and regulations that the Commonwealth adopts and periodically updates for use across the state. Such regulations would allow for training, interpretation, commentary, adaptation, and become an overlay to basic code provisions. Requirements needed to be readily understandable and achievable, utilizing current construction technologies and practices.

The second challenge is imminent: the updating of the Massachusetts Building Code Regulations and a consequent updating of the “stretch” code. Still to be formally heard, the new code must build on newer technologies and the experience gained through the first rendition. Many of the proposed code changes for the 2015 national model codes must be weighed and even improved upon to stay at the leading edge of energy efficiency. The new “stretch” must also give greater attention to the retrofit possibilities and opportunities of existing homes and businesses, where the preponderance of energy use occurs. Opportunities abound, since national minimum code requirements that apply to all new buildings and additions historically have not been retroactive to existing buildings. Updated proposals have recommended this be addressed.

One hundred twenty three Green Communities will consider whether they should continue with the program (no action necessary) or vote to decline to continue with the upgraded requirements and forgo future funding. Other “green” codes were considered; many did not adequately address the state’s policy goals or provide a well-defined framework that would easily overlay existing energy codes, set guaranteed energy efficiency and conservation improvements, limit additional burdens on the existing code administration functions or be readily enforceable by communities. Most do not adequately address the problem of existing retrofits and provide many options for compliance but far less attention to energy improvements.

National Model Energy Codes

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), through its Building Energy Codes Program (BECP), supports the development and improvement of national model energy codes and standards by participating in their development, as maintained by the International Code Council (ICC) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).
The DOE role in building energy codes is defined by statutory requirements set by the Energy Conservation and Production Act (ECPA) of 1977 (Pub. L. No. 94-385) as amended by the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPACT 1992) (Pub. L. No. 102-486) and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA 2007) (Pub. L. No. 110-140)

Current program goals are as follows:

  • Model energy codes and standards targeted at 50 percent energy savings over the 2006 IECC for residential buildings and Standard 90.1—2004 for commercial buildings.
  • Adoption of the 2009 IECC for residential buildings and Standard 90.1—2007 for commercial buildings by 70 percent of U.S. states and territories by 2015.
  • A 90 percent compliance rate with the 2009 IECC for residential buildings and Standard 90.1—2007 for commercial buildings by 2017.

While it can be said that buildings compliant with national model energy codes and standards are more comfortable and cost-effective to operate, they also prove to be a key component of sound local, state and federal public policy, providing energy, economic and environmental benefits.

For instance, nationally, reductions in building energy consumption and utility costs correlate to reduced dependency on foreign sources of oil; in turn, mitigating the economic peril of national security issues tied to the fluctuating cost of oil and unstable geo-political influence abroad. State-wide and locally, energy savings achieved in upgrading commercial properties to the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) will reduce out-of-pocket expenses for building owners, paying off their initial investment in a matter of months, resulting in the opportunity to invest in their workforce and business technologies.

About the Author

Darren B. Meyers, Donald J. Vigneau
Darren B. Meyers, P.E., CEM, is with International Energy Conservation Consultants LLC, and Donald J. Vigneau, AIA, works for the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP).

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