February 2, 2021 | Amy Boyce, Jake Duncan

Our world is continuing to undergo dramatic shifts as the coronavirus pandemic rages on and the effects of climate change and racial injustice become more apparent. In their silent way, buildings have often been at the center of these issues, as the place some, but not all people, can safely and comfortably quarantine, and as a key to the low-carbon future humanity needs to survive. Against this backdrop, the niche world of building regulation takes on outsized importance as the connection between buildings today and buildings tomorrow. Our view is that regulation must proactively support the vision of the society we want, and therefore must prioritize efficiency, electrification, and demand flexibility.

Clean Energy, Electrification and Gas Bans

Energy efficiency and renewables in building code are well covered, but electrification and flexibility are newer concepts and merit some background discussion. To complete a clean energy transition, all the buildings that have historically used on-site combustion need to convert to electricity – like installing an electric hot water heater instead of one powered with fossil gas. To accelerate this transition, many local governments are advancing building codes that support electrification, ban gas use in buildings, or do both. Last year, local governments across the country came out in record numbers to vote on an energy efficiency upgrade for the 2021 national model energy code. More than 70 percent of these voters supported code-based electrification measures, ranging from electric-ready construction, to adding electric vehicle charging. Though all measures didn’t pass, the code did make significant efficiency gains, and represents a growing recognition of the connection between buildings and climate. Additionally, over 50 local governments have passed measures banning fossil gas use in some subset of new buildings through their local code.

It’s Not What We Use, But When We Use It

Electrification is a massive piece of the decarbonization puzzle. However, electrification alone is not enough to transform buildings into climate and social solutions because the larger power system buildings sit within matter. In fact electrification could be costly and problematic because electrification increases electricity demand. Drastically. A recent California report found that we will need “sustained record-setting build rates [of new generation] to meet a high electrification future”. In addition to new generation, the whole country will need new transmission and distribution infrastructure to transport this new scale of electricity to our homes and businesses. The national price tag for all of this infrastructure is in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions, and could negatively impact underserved communities sooner than those privileged enough to electrify now.  

However, as we get smarter about what kind of energy we use, if we also get smarter about when we use electricity, we can build the right amount of new infrastructure to ensure electrified buildings and vehicles are environmentally beneficial. Activating smart, electric equipment to prioritize operating when there is cheap and clean electricity on the grid means we need to build less generation and grid infrastructure, we see carbon reductions sooner, and everyone’s bills go down. As building codes are updated, it is crucial they also create a path to electrification that also ensures new buildings are smart and flexible enough to operate in a renewable future.

Codifying Building Flexibility

While the model energy code does not currently require measures related to grid flexibility, more and more localities are choosing to adopt provisions that will facilitate the increase of Grid-interactive Efficient Buildings (GEB). Localities in home-rule states, such as Colorado, or those that allow local governments to adopt stretch-code options, such as Massachusetts and California, are leading the way towards smart and flexible buildings. Codifying grid flexibility helps level the playing field for real estate and moves the jurisdiction much faster toward a new normal of high-performing buildings. Since the code is mandatory (versus opt-in high-performing building programs), it is important to ensure that the code itself is flexible enough to accommodate all buildings. Both prescriptive or performance-based codes offer pathways to advance energy use flexibility, with pros and cons associated with each approach. 

Prescriptive code requirements provide a clear path toward demand reduction, but may be too limited to meet individual building opportunities for flexibility. Examples of relevant prescriptive code pathways could be maximum or minimum temperature set points or maximum lighting power density during a demand response event. Looking to the future, code could require two-way communication between systems and the grid that allows for smaller, real-time adjustments, enabling the operation of the building in a more grid-friendly fashion, with minimal impact on occupants or operators.

Performance-based code requirements, like requiring a percent reduction in demand, offer more flexibility for buildings to leverage diverse sources of flexibility – as one building may be able to create flexibility with pre-cooling, while another could make space use and scheduling adjustments. However, meeting some performance metrics may become more difficult for higher performing buildings with less load to shed.

To meet the varying needs of buildings, advocates could consider an example from Washington, DC’s Commercial Energy Code, which allows for tradeoffs between renewable energy installation and demand response activities, or exceptions for buildings designed to minimize peak demand compared to a reference building. Interested parties could also look to the LEED Grid Harmonization credit for inspiration or the New Building Institute’s GridOptimal Building Initiative for creative ideas on which to base innovative demand flexibility.

Finally, on the residential side, grid interactive appliances present an opportunity for homeowners to benefit from price signals and contribute to reducing strain on the grid. Incorporating the installation of smart appliances into the energy code can drive market demand, increasing availability of models and types of equipment while reducing prices.

Today’s Codes Make Tomorrow’s Buildings

Building codes are historically reactionary, but we are in a moment of time when we must adapt as quickly as possible. As the cost of renewable power continues to drop, the grid is already shifting. The best return on investment for cities and for the public good, is to take control over uncertainty by setting guidelines for the buildings of tomorrow, while still offering enough flexibility for the private sector to adapt to the market. This means codes and the local governments that administer them must prepare us to move forward, rather than belatedly set standards for yesterday’s changes. A fully decarbonized economy requires us to use every tool at our disposal. Let’s ensure we do just that.

For anyone interested in exploring this emerging and important topic, please reach out to Amy Boyce and Jake Duncan at IMT. You can also learn more from our colleagues at the New Buildings Institute  and the National Association of State Energy Officials.

Program Area(s):

Codes , Real Estate

Meet the Authors

Senior Director, Building and Energy Performance

Jake Duncan

Southeast Regulatory Director, Vote Solar and Former Senior Associate at IMT

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