The Real Impact of Federal Law on Energy Efficiency

Aug. 23, 2017

Outdated legislation is hindering growth in the industry. 

You may not know it, but federal rules are hurting energy efficiency projects— laws created decades ago that still have precedent today. 

A recently released white paper from New Buildings Institute (NBI) highlights how federal preemption rules construct huge barriers when using energy codes to achieve higher energy efficiency in buildings and communities.

Originally setting the bar for energy reduction, these decades-old federal laws set the national standards of energy efficiency, which have counteractively prohibited states and cities from setting standards that are more ambitious.

“Cities and states find themselves hamstrung when they try to use energy codes to help meet energy and climate action plan goals,” says NBI Director of Codes and Policy Jim Edelson. “Preemption won’t allow them to prescribe higher appliance and HVAC efficiency even though products with high levels of efficiency already dominate their markets.”

Local jurisdictions have discovered that by raising standards over the three-year model energy code development cycles offer an effective strategy to help reduce carbon emissions and meet climate or energy policy goals. 

The report points out buildings have emerged as a crucial passageway to net-zero energy efficiency because they account for about 40% of carbon emissions in the United States and up to 75% in cities.

In the study, NBI found several key constraints presented by the federal rules, including:

  • Compliance confusion. Federal preemption does allow local and state codes to require more efficient equipment, as long as the code includes at least one combination of measures for products that do not exceed the federally mandated minimums. However, multi-path code approaches are both limiting and confusing for states and jurisdictions that want to significantly advance energy efficiency in the building sector.

  • Higher cost for design and construction. NBI combined an energy-saving analysis derived from computer modeling with costing data to estimate and compare the cost of including and not including covered equipment in achieving a beyond-code energy savings target for a medium-sized office building. While both scenarios resulted in a 10-15% better efficiency outcome, the high-efficiency equipment did so for more than $1.50 less per square foot — a significant reduction in compliance cost.

  • Outdated approach to building design. The metrics specified by federal preemption have a bias for single technology components and don’t take into account modern practice of integrating equipment, and distribution and control systems that allows for higher levels of efficiency. This aspect is of particular threat to the growing market for zero-energy buildings where integrated systems are essential in order to achieve ultra-low energy building performance targets.

To learn more and read NBI’s white paper, Federal Preemption as a Barrier to Cost Savings and High Performance Buildings in Local Energy Codes, visit the company’s web site.

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