Building Electrification and National Building Standards Support Each Other

April 9, 2020 | Jim Meyers

Building electrification is the new buzz word for construction in states and cities. For the past 20 years, SWEEP has focused on bringing energy efficiency throughout the Southwest. Over this period, the building efficiency world has changed. If we think back only ten years ago, cities, states, and the building industry were in the throes of a deep recession which started, depending upon who you ask, in the finance and building industry. At that time, the focus to reduce energy consumption was critical to support struggling businesses and citizens across our region. We focused on improving energy efficiency in buildings via new codes and standards to support citizens and communities economically and environmentally.

Today, new construction in many markets has rebounded and demand for housing is needed by all the generations from the Silenters to Gen Zs. The need for and the production of energy have also changed. We see more solar installations on buildings, energy storage is becoming attainable, utilities have an urgent need to balance network loads, and cities across the Southwest have enacted climate policies to move their communities to high levels of renewable energy—as much as 100 percent. States have also set ambitious goals for renewable energy and carbon neutrality.

The primary path to reach 100 percent renewably powered buildings and cars is to move consumption to electricity. Over the years, and still today, there are many homes and buildings powered only by electricity. While the reasons vary, we all know electric buildings can be built to support the needs of the occupants today, using highly efficient and widely available technology. The efficiency part of the equation is addressed through building codes.

Building codes and standards provide the path by which building designers understand the safety and comfort expectation of future occupants. These codes and standards can support the construction of buildings using any fuel type.

The ICC building codes, NFPA National Electric Code, and ASHRAE standards provide the foundation for constructing buildings. The codes and standards are written to be flexible and to not inhibit new building practices. They allow the design and construction of buildings with single energy use be it electric, gas, propane, or other fuels. And, the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) will bring together many of these industries to construct buildings better prepared to support an electric-only future-proofed building.

For the most part, the workforce and building industry see very little difference between buildings powered by different fuels. In the case of today’s energy efficient construction, we would see heat pump systems for both space conditioning and water heat. Municipal code enforcement officials unfamiliar with these appliances would need to learn about the products and technologies just as they would with any new roofing or new wall sheathing materials.

Cities that have set near-term climate goals will need to modify the codes and standards through an amendment process. Incorporating very efficient buildings and renewable energy together as a system to reach these aggressive goals constitutes what we refer to as energy optimization. Adding energy storage to the mix not only supports the building occupants, but also the utility company’s demand requirements during the peak load period.

The economics of constructing electric-only buildings, housing in particular, is being studied by diverse organizations1. Findings include cost savings for occupants and builders as only one power source is provided to the building which reduces infrastructure costs for residential developments and commercial building projects.  

Any cities, counties, or states concerned about major hurdles to move buildings to consuming high levels of renewable energy need not worry. The base construction codes and standards support all electric buildings and highly efficient buildings. The Southwest has an opportunity to chart a path through electrification to show the benefits of buildings operating on 100 percent renewable energy. The codes and standards support—not impede—these goals.

  1. Organizations studying building electrification:

Jim Meyers is the Buildings Program Director at SWEEP. He is responsible for conducting analysis, preparing case studies, evaluating new and emerging technologies for buildings, and promoting the adoption of state-of-the-art building energy codes.