N.C. poised to take huge step forward in building efficiency

For years, the obscure panel in charge of North Carolina’s building code has blocked standards that would have reduced emissions and saved money for new home buyers, siding with developers.

Now, an overhauled code council stocked with appointments by second-term Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is poised to endorse a major update to the state’s energy conservation code, bringing it largely in line with the latest international guidelines.

While the new efficiency standards still face potential hurdles, supporters are hopeful they can help propel North Carolina toward its climate goals. Studies show thicker insulation, better windows, and more efficient lighting will also save money through lower energy bills and improve public health. 

“Advancing the conservation code is a big win for building and homeowners,” said Dr. Rita Joyner, senior advisor with the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association. “It helps to put money back in their pockets while making these facilities healthier and more comfortable.” 

An outdated code 

Cooper signed the first of several climate executive orders in 2018, aiming to cut the state’s global warming pollution by 40% by 2025. A state clean energy plan issued the following year included a long list of recommendations to meet the target, including revising the building code to improve efficiency. The rationale is simple: The less fossil fuels are burned for heating and electricity, the lower the state’s emissions.

In North Carolina, a revamped conservation code is especially needed for residential buildings. Homes are among the largest energy users, second only to transportation, according to the Department of Environmental Quality. Some 90,000 new housing units are built each year. And many elements of the building code that help conserve energy — such as thicker wall insulation —are difficult if not impossible to replace once construction is complete. 

The international model code is revised every three years, incorporating the latest science and technology in building efficiency. But a 2013 state law only allows the residential code to be updated every six years. That restriction, combined with the state’s lengthy rulemaking process and influence from developers, means North Carolina’s current home energy conservation standards are little better than the 2009 guidelines. 

For the past several years, the council has “supported weak increases in energy efficiency minimum code requirements,” the state’s clean energy plan notes. “This action has led to North Carolina’s energy codes becoming less stringent when compared to other Southeastern states, national and international standards.” 

The result isn’t just unfulfilled potential when it comes to energy efficiency. The state misses the chance to compete for millions of dollars of FEMA grants, according to a report to the code council from the state’s Department of Insurance. The lengthy code cycle also impacts the cost of property insurance.

“We fall into a different insurance category which raises insurance rates for everybody in North Carolina,” said Kim Wooten, an electrical engineer from Durham and member of the code council. “It’s not good to have that.”

‘This just benefits of all North Carolina’ 

Wooten is among the 16 new people Cooper has appointed to the 17-member panel since he took office. In 2020, she was among four votes against weakening changes to the energy conservation code — a measure sought by developers that was later thrown out on procedural grounds. 

But now, Wooten is poised to lead an overhaul of the code that could cut energy use in homes up to 16%. For more than a year, she chaired an ad-hoc panel of building code councilors and outside experts who examined the 2021 model code — the latest available — and weighed its adoption in the state.  

“We had quite a bit of input from the public as we were meeting,” she said. “Any and all comments were welcome. We really worked hard to do our homework.” 

Part of that homework: obtaining an analysis of the new code’s costs and benefits, a requirement of state law. The July 2021 study from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory showed the new standards would save consumers monthly from the outset in the form of reduced energy bills. With an average upfront cost of $380, the improved efficiency measures would pay for themselves in three years or less. 

“We were trying to find that delicate balance between energy savings, jobs creation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Wooten said. “The economic impact was undeniable. We’re thinking to ourselves, ‘This just benefits all of North Carolina.’” 

Adopting the most up-to-date model code also unlocks millions of dollars from the federal government for implementation, including training building inspectors, Wooten said. 

Because the state has a goal to reduce its greenhouse gases and an active home construction industry, updated codes would benefit North Carolina more than nearly any other state, according to a recent analysis from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. 

Not a done deal 

The Building Code Council meets quarterly, and its process is deliberative, to say the least. At its December meeting, the council voted unanimously — with almost no discussion — to move the updated energy conservation code to the next step: a public hearing in March.  

Dr. Deborah Shealey, a commercial general contractor and recent addition to the panel, said the lack of controversy was in part because disputes got aired and resolved elsewhere. “We do all the work in committee,” she said. “That’s where a lot of discussion occurs.” 

But it’s hard not to detect the imprint of advocates who’ve pushed for efficiency experts on the board and a governor who’s made clean energy central to his agenda. 

“Gov. Cooper considers a wide variety of qualifications, including a candidate’s approach to clean energy and energy efficiency, when making appointments to the Building Code Council,” deputy communications director Jordan Monaghan said when asked about the panel’s overhaul. “As the market-driven transition to clean energy and energy efficiency occurs across the country, the governor will continue to take action to make sure North Carolina is a leader in these efforts.”

Still, the updated conservation code is far from a done deal. A revamped analysis from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on the impacts of the new standards are expected to be released soon, before the March hearing. After that, the council will vote on their adoption in June. Then it must pass muster with a rules-review panel, and possibly the state legislature, before it takes effect at the beginning of 2025.

Once a fixture at Building Code Council meetings, North Carolina Home Builders Association lobbyist Robert Privott didn’t attend the December meeting. But Wooten said her committee had consulted him and his colleagues extensively on the changes, and they hadn’t raised objections. “We really appreciated the input from the Home Builders Association,” she said.

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