By Ian Lund
More than 43% of all energy consumed in the U.S. is used to heat or cool buildings. Globally, about one-third of all carbon emissions can be traced back to the building sector. While much attention is on electrifying our lives and procuring more carbon-free resources, every new building constructed increases the total amount of energy demand on the system. Luckily, there’s a tried and tested regulatory tool for moderating energy usage in buildings: building codes.
Building codes define the minimum standards to which new buildings and major renovations are designed. They cover almost all aspects of building design, such as regulating structural features like stairs, electrical features to keep us safe, and plumbing standards to keep everything flowing properly. Building codes can also set minimum energy efficiency standards. Code today is efficiency tomorrow; they are a huge factor in the size of the average building’s carbon footprint.
That’s why MEIC and our members pushed the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (MDLI) to strengthen its Code. Under Montana law, counties and municipalities cannot impose codes stricter than those established at the state level. We are very pleased to report that the MDLI adopted nearly all of the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), bringing Montana in line with modern standards for energy efficiency. Additionally, MDLI included three climate-focused stretch codes that local governments can voluntarily adopt.
The three stretch codes are solar-ready homes, solar-ready commercial buildings, and zero-energy commercial zones. Falling just short of actually requiring solar panels to be installed, the solar-ready stretch code requires buildings to have large south-facing roofs and electrical wiring to be designed to accommodate the conduits and inverters associated with rooftop solar projects that may be added later. The solar-ready code will ensure that new buildings can get solar easily and affordably.
The zero-energy commercial zone stretch code would require new commercial buildings to assess their total energy usage and either offset that energy usage by producing an equivalent amount of renewable energy on-site or procuring it off-site. By adopting these stretch codes, the MDLI gave local governments a green light to require that some of the largest energy users in their jurisdiction use exclusively renewable energy. The zero-energy requirement would apply to all new buildings in a commercial zone.
However, these stretch codes only go into effect if local governments elect to include them. Currently, there are three cities with 100% clean electricity by 2030 goals – Bozeman, Missoula, and Helena. These are the most likely jurisdictions to implement the stretch codes, but even they are not likely to do so without public pressure. The City of Bozeman is currently considering including zero-energy and solar-ready standards as part of an incentive structure for new developments, though falling short of making them mandatory. Before including it in its Unified Development Code, Bozeman wants to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. If the City includes the social cost of carbon in its calculations, it would likely find that allowing for the easy addition of rooftop solar on buildings and decreasing emissions from the commercial sector would be a net positive.
Any city, county, or town certified by the state to enforce building codes can adopt the new codes and the stretch codes. Those localities need pressure from the public to do so. If you would like your government to adopt the building and stretch codes as a climate action, contact your local officials.
This article was published in the September 2022 issue of Down To Earth.