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As an uproar over the future of gas appliances burns hot, it's overshadowing efficiency gains and other benefits states can achieve with building code updates.
Forget about gas stoves. There’s another way states can cut back the greenhouse gas emissions of new buildings, and the federal government is handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to help them do it: updating building codes.
Just revising the rules governing energy use in new construction can lead to sizable reductions in air pollution, advocates say, not to mention lower bills and a more comfortable environment for the people who live and work in the buildings.
The codes set out minimum standards that buildings must meet, regulating issues including roofs, electric wiring, plumbing, heating and fire safety devices. Most contain sections about energy use, which are especially important to cutting emissions.
“States can make really big strides in the efficiency of their building stock and reducing their emissions simply by adopting and enforcing the most recent model code,” said Justin Backal Balik, the state program director for Evergreen Action, an environmental advocacy group.
The federal Energy Department estimates that if every state adopted the most recent model building codes for commercial and residential properties, it could reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 900 million metric tons by 2040. That’s the equivalent, Balik noted, of taking 195 million gas-powered cars or 227 coal-fired electric plants offline for a year. Overall in the U.S. buildings account for about 13% of carbon emissions.
Industry groups develop the model codes, which states can then adopt. (In some states, the codes are left to localities instead of state government.) They are updated every three years, with incremental improvements in every revision.
Newer standards that require more insulation, more efficient equipment, better lighting and reduced air leakage can add up quickly, said Mike Waite, the senior manager in the buildings program for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The 2021 model code for residential buildings is 27% more efficient than the version issued in 2009, for example.
But those advancements don’t always cost more money during construction, Waite pointed out. Using more effective lighting can reduce the number of light fixtures a building needs. More insulation could decrease the size of a furnace or air conditioner that has to be installed.
“Energy codes set the minimum level of performance for all buildings. They’re not designed to reinvent the wheel. They’re just ensuring that a cost-effective level of energy efficiency is available for all the homes and businesses,” Waite said.
Impact Varies by State
How much each state would benefit from updating its building codes depends on several factors. Those include how long it has been since they adopted their latest code, the sources of energy their customers use, the amount of new construction in the state and the state’s goals for decreasing its greenhouse gas emissions.
Most states with building codes updated them at least once since 2009, when the Obama administration provided incentives for them to modernize their regulations as part of its stimulus package.
Louisiana would benefit the most from modernizing its building code, according to a recent ACEEE analysis.
Also among the top states in need of updates, according to the group, would be North Carolina, Minnesota, North Dakota, Virginia, Wyoming, Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee.
For the states to see gains, though, they would have to adopt the same standards as the ones specified in model codes. Occasionally, state policymakers will make amendments that decrease the effectiveness of the energy standards, Waite said, such as reducing the requirements for air leakage performance and testing.
That’s especially “troubling” in cold climates, he said, because it increases the costs to both heat and cool the building. “It’s too bad, too, because no one wants to live in a drafty home,” Waite said. “It just highlights the fact that energy codes don’t only reduce energy bills, they have other benefits, as well.”
Evergreen Action, which grew out of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign, encouraged states to implement stricter standards than are contained in the model codes, as Washington state and California have done.
Taking things further allowed Washington state to require heat pumps for new construction last year, in effect starting to wean the state off of natural gas. The regulators targeted natural gas because it accounted for nearly 80% of emissions produced by buildings, Evergreen Action noted.
The debate over natural gas appliances moved to the front burner in recent days, after a commissioner for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission suggested the agency could ban gas stoves because of the health hazards they pose. Agency officials have since clarified that they are not actually considering a full ban.
Meanwhile, Waite from the ACEEE, said the questions about updating building codes and the use of natural gas are “unrelated.”
“Energy efficiency is really just about bringing down utility costs and making homes and buildings more comfortable,” he said.
Federal Funds Available
In fact, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the politicians who slammed the consumer safety agency for looking into gas stoves, was also the architect of a new federal law packed with climate programs that could help states update their building codes and increase energy efficiency.
Manchin helped shepherd the Inflation Reduction Act through the Senate last summer, which includes many grant programs to make buildings more energy efficient.
For example, the law provides $330 million in grants to state and local governments to adopt the latest residential and commercial codes. It sets aside more than twice that amount of money—$670 million—to develop “stretch codes” that local governments can impose to develop “zero-energy” buildings that produce enough renewable energy to offset their core energy use.
State and tribal energy offices will also have nearly $9 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to help homeowners rehabilitate their properties to make them more energy efficient or add renewable energy sources, as well as to help pay for smaller upgrades such as heat pumps, electric stoves, windows, doors, insulation, electric wiring and ventilation.
On top of that, the 2021 infrastructure law also provides $225 million that states can use to improve energy efficiency.
Waite said states can start using the money from the infrastructure law to begin the process of upgrading their building codes, even if they can’t immediately move to the most recent version.
“That funding can support effective code implementation now and set them on a path forward for further updates and efficiency improvements that are going to be coming from additional federal funding down the line,” he said.
States can use the funds to train code enforcement personnel about the new standards, as well as to educate people in the industry about the heightened requirements, Waite said. States could also develop toolkits for local officials to use, because much of the enforcement for statewide codes is done by local governments, he added.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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