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California takes another big step to decarbonize buildings

California's 2022 Energy Code blazes a trail for states seeking to decarbonize the building sector aggressively and cost-effectively.

By Samantha Donalds, Clean Energy States Alliance

The California 2022 Energy Code for newly constructed and renovated buildings blazes a trail for states and local governments seeking to decarbonize the building sector aggressively, feasibly, and cost-effectively. The updated code, adopted by the California Energy Commission (CEC) in August 2022, encourages electric heat pumps, establishes electric-ready requirements for new homes, and strengthens ventilation standards. For the first time in the nation, this update also includes solar+storage systems as the performance standards baseline for select nonresidential building types. Over the next 30 years, this code is estimated to provide the state with $1.5 billion in environmental benefits. The development of this code was a multiyear effort led by the CEC through a robust public process and with support from an expansive network of key market partners such as California’s largest utilities, the building community, and environmental advocates.

Updating the energy code and moving the needle

Roughly every three years, the state of California updates its Energy Code to reduce wasteful, inefficient, uneconomic, and unnecessary energy consumption in newly constructed buildings, additions, and alterations. Updates to these standards must be technologically feasible and cost-effective in their entirety, making the Energy Code itself a consumer protection mechanism. The Energy Code impacts residential and commercial buildings, and the industrial sector, which together account for almost 50 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Proactive decarbonization of these sectors, as exemplified by California’s Energy Code, is a critical, least-cost means to achieving the state’s climate action goals. For this reason and others, the Energy Code is considered a key strategy to actualizing the CEC’s mission of “leading the state to a 100% clean energy future for all.”

Innovation in building efficiencies

The 2022 Energy Code builds on decades of meticulous work and leverages California’s latest market-ready technology innovations. The Code elevates the use of air source heat pumps, a standout electric technology used for water heating and space heating. Electric heat pumps can provide substantial increases in energy efficiency, drastic reductions in GHG emissions, and opportunities for load flexibility, all while being cost-comparable to other prevalent systems in the market. The 2022 Energy Code includes heat pumps as the performance standards’ baseline for single-family homes, multifamily housing, and for select commercial buildings, such as schools, offices, banks, libraries, retail, and grocery. These heat pump measures are not mandatory and can be traded off—using approved computer modeling software— by increasing energy efficiency in other aspects of the building.

One of the more tangible public benefits of the Energy Code is a first-in-the-nation set of standards for nonresidential solar+storage systems. Using battery storage allows onsite energy to be available when needed and reduces the grid’s reliance on fossil fuel power plants. The 2022 Energy Code establishes solar+storage as the standard for select nonresidential building types, including high-rise multifamily buildings, hotel-motels, offices, medical offices, clinic, retail, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and civic spaces.  

The 2022 update also includes additional electric-ready requirements for residential buildings, anticipating the growing market for electric homes and electric vehicles. Electric ready means having dedicated circuits and panel accommodations to easily enable the installation of electric appliances in the future.

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Costs and public benefits of the code

Updating and developing the building codes to support the state’s energy efficiency goals is a huge undertaking with a sizeable budget, roughly $135 million over three years. In comparison, the stated benefits of the 2022 Energy Code to the public are estimated to be $1.5 billion in consumer and environmental benefits and the reduction of 10 million metric tons of GHG emissions, equivalent to taking nearly 2.2 million cars off the road for a year. Every update helps the state meet its goals while directly benefiting building owners and occupants through more comfortable buildings that save money on energy costs and, not incidentally, increase market value.

California’s Energy Code is strategically structured to be transparent, replicable, and scalable for other states and governments to learn from and build upon. In essence, the Energy Code is public benefit developed by the public. Between April 2019 and the date of adoption, the CEC held and participated in 45 stakeholder meetings and public workshops, with support from the Public Utilities Commission and statewide Codes & Standards Program. The CEC also held three Lead Commissioner hearings, considered over 300 formal public comments, and committed countless hours to collaboration with a diverse spectrum of public stakeholders.

Setting the standard

The Energy Code is considered a minimum requirement by which the state’s local jurisdictions have the option to exceed through reach codes. Local jurisdictions wishing to enforce locally adopted energy standards are required to apply to the CEC for approval, demonstrate cost-effectiveness, and demonstrate stringency greater than the statewide Energy Code requirements. For the 2019 Energy Code, over 40 reach codes have been approved. This speaks to the flexibility and the customizability of California’s Energy Code. It also speaks to the leadership role of the state’s local jurisdictions. Coming full circle, the state’s local reach codes are thoroughly assessed by the CEC for trends to help inform subsequent code cycles as statewide requirements—making local jurisdictions natural partners that build upon the foundational influence of the Energy Code.

The team that leads development of the California Energy Code also actively engages in national energy code developments efforts, such as the International Energy Conservation Code and ASHRAE 90.1 updates. This level of collaboration consistently affords ample opportunities for two-way learning with code development efforts happening nationally.

The Energy Code has not only revolutionized building construction in California but influenced efficiency goals and practices in countries around the globe. In just in the last year, the CEC has been contacted by representatives from the Danish Energy Agency, Swedish Energy Agency, Mexico City, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and other climate-action driven governments. These entities have reached out to exchange learnings relating to the success of California’s rooftop solar standards and overall building energy efficiency standards process.

In 2022, the California Energy Commission was awarded a State Leadership in Clean Energy Award for the 2022 Energy Codes by the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA). According to an independent panel of judges, “Energy codes are a powerful lever for change, and the California Energy Commission has pushed the envelope and raised the bar for what is possible for building codes and clean energy. These codes serve as a good reference point for other states.” For a detailed case study on California’s 2022 Energy Codes, and the five other winners of the 2022 State Leadership in Clean Energy Awards, see a new report released by CESA in September 2022.  Representatives from the CEC will discuss the 2022 Energy Code in a CESA webinar on October 26 – learn more.

Join us on Feb. 6, 2023 in San Diego for the inaugural GridTECH Connect Forum, the only event that brings together utility leaders and distributed energy resource developers to overcome the challenges associated with interconnection. Learn more about the new, regional event from Clarion Energy today.

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