Cracking the Nut on Energy Code Compliance

September 24, 2012 | Sarah Stellberg

Heading North

About two months ago, on an unusually sweltering mid-summer morning, I boarded Amtrak’s Vermonter train from Union Station in D.C. and settled in for a 12-hour journey up the Mid-Atlantic.

I had embarked on a ten-day pursuit of work and study with the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), a nonprofit institute in Montpelier, Vt., that advises state regulators, utilities, and policymakers on environmental sustainability in the power sector. 

The goal of my trip was a knowledge exchange between IMT and RAP: to engage in conversations on customer data access, state energy efficiency resource standards, efficiency program design, and the U.S. energy efficiency potential.

But my focus ultimately turned to an unlikely topic: cracking the nut on energy code compliance.

Reality Check for Building Energy Codes

State or local building codes have served as a cornerstone of U.S. energy policy since the 1970s. Today, roughly three-quarters of the nation's construction is or will soon be subject to an energy code that meets or exceeds the requirements of the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), a model standard that achieves roughly 30 percent energy savings over a home built just decades ago. The 2012 IECC goes an additional 10-15 percent beyond these standards.

Despite their ubiquity, the unfortunate reality is that mandatory energy codes are poorly enforced. It’s not uncommon for a state to adopt a code without developing a mechanism by which to administer the law. Even with a dedicated enforcement agency, understaffing, resource strains, and competing priorities mean energy codes are often overlooked. 

The energy code requirements for states receiving federal Recovery Act funds has in recent years driven a heightened focus on implementation efforts, but the fundamental challenge remains: local governments lack the resources to hire additional inspection staff, host trainings for the construction industry, and otherwise step up enforcement efforts.

Moving the Mark on Code Compliance

Research suggests that half or more of all new buildings fail to comply with the minimum legal energy performance standards. Given today's economic and political realities, how do we move the mark on energy code compliance across the U.S.?

Follow the money. Utility ratepayer funding for energy efficiency programs reached $8 billion in the U.S. last year. This figure is expected to rise as states ratchet up energy efficiency portfolio or resource standards (EEPS and EERS) or other regulatory incentive mechanisms.

As a consequence, utilities must increase investment in new programs that drive deep savings and market transformation.

A Beacon for Energy Code Enforcement in Vermont

Four days into my stay in Vermont, I met with Chris Burns, Director of Energy Services at the Burlington Electric Department (BED), the city’s public power utility. The City of Burlington, Vt., is currently the only municipality in the state that enforces a commercial building energy code, thanks to support from the BED. 

Chris and his team review all building permits that pass through the city’s Department of Public Works, providing technical assistance with building design and inspecting plans for energy code compliance.

Issuance of a building permit is contingent upon a letter of approval from the utility. The rest of the state relies on builders or contractors to self-certify compliance on a Vermont RBES/CBES certificate. This means builders face no penalty for non-compliance.

An Uphill Battle for Utilities and Energy Code Programs

Burlington Electric Department is among only a handful of utilities that engage in activities to support the energy code in their territories. Energy codes programs can be a tough sell. As a legal mandate, the code is all stick, no carrot, which can be a source of contention with builders.

Improved energy codes also shift the baseline of standard building practices upward. This makes it more difficult and expensive for utility program administrators to achieve savings from other incentive programs that go beyond “business as usual.”

The fact remains, however, that many existing utility programs aim to fix problems that should have been addressed—less invasively and at least cost—during construction. Instead of providing retroactive incentives to correct improper duct sealing or wall insulation, why not prevent buildings from hemorrhaging energy from day one?

Tapping Into Initiatives That Work

Program evaluations from the longest-standing utility codes programs in Washington and California have demonstrated that ratepayer-funded energy codes development, adoption, and implementation initiatives can deliver substantial savings at a fraction of the cost of other energy efficiency.

On a nationwide level, IMT estimates that simply tackling the compliance issue could yield average annual energy savings ramping up to 50,000 GWh in the next decade.

Utilities and codes advocates alike would be wise to tap into this well.

Meet the Author

Sarah Stellberg

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