This article is the second of a two-part series. To read about residential code proposals, click here.
With millions of commercial and apartment buildings in the United States, an improved model building energy code can make a significant difference when it comes to reducing energy waste, saving owners and tenants money on their utility bills, and avoiding power plant pollution. Updating the code also is a critical policy tool for states, counties, and cities working to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
That’s why code officials, builders, energy efficiency advocates, and others met last month in Albuquerque on proposals to update the next model residential and commercial building codes for homes and the commercial energy code. In Part One of this series, I discussed the proposals at play for the residential energy code. Today we’re examining the commercial energy code, which covers building elements like insulation, windows, and mechanical equipment in non-residential buildings and multifamily structures over four stories in height.
As part of the process of updating the energy code, the Natural Resources Defense Council and many others submitted proposals to the International Code Council back in January, offering a variety of ideas for modifying the energy code.
The Committee Action Hearings in May gave proponents and opponents of each proposal the opportunity to hash it out in front of a technical advisory committee, which then voted on each one. Next, proponents can revise and resubmit proposals, which will be discussed again during the Public Comment Hearings in October. Governmental voting members like city code officials or sustainability directors have the final word, and they’ll get to vote on each proposal in November.
While governmental officials hold the ultimate power on what goes into the new building energy code, the commercial code committee’s action this month is still important: a favorable recommendation means a proposal only needs a simple majority of governmental official votes to pass and become part of the code, while a committee recommendation for disapproval means that a proposal requires a two-thirds majority of votes to reverse it to become part of the code.
We’ve previously noted how difficult it is to get good energy efficiency proposals passed by the notably challenging residential code committee. Well, I’m happy to report that the commercial committee was much more favorable to energy efficiency, and if all goes well in the November vote, there will be substantial energy efficiency improvements in the commercial energy code.
Electric vehicle charging
A proposal for electric vehicle charging infrastructure (CE217 Part 1) received a favorable recommendation from the committee, which is great news. While promoting electric vehicles may initially seem like a completely separate issue from the building energy code, where do you charge your electric car? Generally at the building where you live or work. And it’s much cheaper and easier to install the charging infrastructure, which includes conduit and wiring and space on the electric panel, at the time of construction.
Electric vehicles are key to the fight against the climate crisis. More than 95% of the energy used in transportation comes from oil, which means high levels of pollution and emissions. Electric vehicles have much lower emissions, and every major automaker plans to electrify a significant portion of its vehicle fleets in the coming years.
However, a key barrier to customer adoption is the lack of access to EV charging stations. This proposal would require a certain percentage of parking spaces in commercial buildings to be ready to support electric vehicle charging infrastructure, which makes sense for drivers, building owners, and the Earth.
The committee also passed a swath of proposals that will improve the insulation required in roofs (CE61), above- and below-grade walls (CE63 and CE64, respectively), floors (CE66) and building slabs (CE68 and CE69). Each of these proposals would have a moderate impact on a building’s energy efficiency, but taken together they will result in buildings that use less energy and are more comfortable.
Furthermore, these proposals make improvements based on extensive research and cost-benefit analyses used to support ASHRAE 90.1, which is another type of building energy standard commonly used for commercial building construction. By selecting the most efficient, cost-effective requirements from the IECC and ASHRAE 90.1, these improvements will help ensure that commercial buildings reap the benefits of efficiency. And since insulation is likely to remain unchanged over the useful life of the building (70-100 years or more), these improvements will benefit generations of building occupants.
Miscellaneous electrical loads – meaning all the things you plug in, like monitors, printers, and space heaters – use more than one-third of the energy in the average commercial building. That number is projected to grow to nearly 45% over the next 15 years. Lots of energy is wasted by printers or monitors that consume energy in idle mode, even when nobody is there to use them. A proposal passed the committee (CE216) that will require at least half of all electrical outlets to have automatic shutoffs, to cut down on this “vampire load.”
When it comes to fenestration (meaning any openings in the building’s envelope, like windows or doors), there were multiple proposals (CE84 and CE87) that will significantly increase efficiency. A broad range of representatives in the fenestration industry reached a consensus that will both improve the efficiency and comfort of windows, and also align the IECC and ASHRAE 90.1, making compliance and enforcement easier.
That’s great news for anyone in an office building or a high-rise multifamily building who sits near a window that is too hot in the summer: improved fenestration saves energy while making buildings more comfortable and reducing solar heat gain.
My colleagues Dan Bresette at the Alliance to Save Energy and Kim Cheslak at the Institute for Market Transformation give a great overview of some additional proposals that passed the commercial committee, including proposals that would require energy-monitoring systems (CE215), improve the efficiency of ventilation in multifamily buildings by requiring energy recovery ventilation systems, and making changes to the structure of the code to make it clearer and easier to use (CE41, CE42 Part 1, and CE218, among others).
There’s also an interesting proposal (CE264) to codify Architecture 2030’s ZERO CODE as an option for code compliance. And just like in the residential code, efficiency advocates were successful at ensuring that the commercial code doesn’t slide backward, in spite of numerous attempts to weaken it by some attending the committee hearing.
It was a great few weeks in Albuquerque, and we’re off to a solid start to make the 2021 energy code the best one yet.
Lauren Urbanek is senior energy policy advocate at the NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program. This post originally appeared at the NRDC Expert Blog.