An issue that's good for the environment, your pocketbook, and the economy

We live in a polarized political and economic age—particularly in the state of Texas—where renewables are either a godsend or a pipedream, or fossil fuels are our economic bedrock or a climate change disaster.

So, it’s refreshing when an issue is good for both the environment and the economy. And, it’s refreshing when strange bedfellows like the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Texas Chemical Council are in agreement with an issue.

But that’s exactly the world of “building energy codes,” and, more specifically, implementation of new Texas requirements to raise our minimum codes for new construction to make new buildings more energy (and water and gas) efficient.

It all dates back to 2001 when, as part of an overall air quality bill, Texas lawmakers ordered the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) to implement the state’s first building energy code, which was based on 2000/2001 versions of the “International Residential Code” and “International Energy Conservation Codes.”

These codes, which are reviewed and updated every three years through the “International Code Council” (essentially, a group of city building code officials and other stakeholders), set minimum energy standards for things like windows, insulation, building envelopes, roofs, lighting and many other aspects of building design. Through both legislative and administrative action, Texas has twice updated these minimum standards, first in 2010, and then, just this past year, with the adoption of the 2015 IECC and 2015 IRC.

What Just Happened?

What happened was one piece of legislation and two administrative actions; and, along the way, a number of stakeholder meetings, phone calls, rule proposals, editorials, action alerts and decision-making.

First, the Legislature passed HB 1736, which raised the minimum code for residential construction to the energy chapter of the 2015 IRC, effective September 1, 2016. Originally conceived as a bill that would have delayed adoption of a new code, significant work led to a “compromise” supported by the Texas Chemical Council, Texas Association of Homebuilders and the Sierra Club among many others.

The bill adopted the 2015 codes for residential construction as the new state minimum, but then delayed any subsequent statewide adoption until 2021 to give the home construction industry some predictability. The bill also allowed builders who chose it a more flexible compliance path known as the Energy Rating Index, a kind of miles-per-gallon energy rating for your home.

Subsequent to the legislation, the State Energy Conservation Office implemented the legislation—reconfirming the new 2015 residential code is effective on September 1, 2015—and updating our commercial codes for new construction to the 2015 IECC effective November 1, 2015 (which also required that state and university-financed buildings meet similar standards by June 1, 2016).

Now, the fun part

While the state sets these minimum codes for new construction, cities must ultimately adopt them, often with their own unique amendments (and politics) along the way.

One example: currently, the City of Austin and Austin Energy are going through their code update process, and groups like the Sierra Club are urging that as part of this energy update process, they also consider add-on amendments like “Solar-Ready” requirements, which would make all new buildings “ready” to incorporate solar PV. Cities such as El Paso, Houston, and Corpus Christi are all beginning the code adoption process. Some Texas cities, like San Antonio, have already adopted the new codes.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations assisting local governments go through the process.

The State Energy Conservation Office has hired a third-party to conduct code trainings throughout Texas. Meanwhile, the South-Central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource (SPEER) is providing  training, direct support for code officials and builders through their Energy Code Ambassadors program, webinars, in-person trainings, and an onsite toolkit for code adoption  The toolkit includes  information on the requirements in state law regarding the energy code, useful clarifying amendments and forms, the benefits of adopting the new codes and much more.  

Do these codes really help the economy and the environment?

Texas requires that the Energy Systems Laboratory, which is part of the Texas A &M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), analyze both the energy savings and reduction in air pollution due to less power plants operating due to implementation of more efficient buildings. Their analysis comparing the 2015 codes with the previously adopted 2009 codes found that an average home in Houston built to the new codes would save between eight and 11 percent over the year, while a home built in Amarillo could save more than 20 percent on an annual basis.

Annual Electricity (KWhs and $s) by Measure and Climate Zone from new 2015 State of Texas Building Codes in Residential Construction as Compared to Compliance with 2009 Codes

Climate Zone2A (Houston, Valley, Austin, San Antonio)3A (Dallas, North Texas, Northeast Texas)3B (Hill Country, West Texas)4A (Panhandle)Total
Number of Homes Constructed per Year 54,937 33,413 11,138 1,120 100,608
Total Electricity Savings Per Home for All 5 Measures (kWh/home) 619.42 1285.18 1101.84 1221.9 898.19
Total Electricity Savings for All Homes (kWhs) 34,029,076 42,941,719 12,272,294 1,368,528 90,365,099
Total Electricity Saved in $ $3,862,256 $4,873,893 $1,392,903 $155,327 $10,284,379

Source: SPEER, DOE Field Study, Preliminary Information provided April, 2016

Similar numbers are found when comparing commercial buildings built to the 2009 versus the 2015 codes. Further, ESL reports that by continually adopting more energy efficient codes, Texas has reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by hundreds of tons (due to coal and natural gas plants running less). And these same energy savings also reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  

Moreover, the new codes require more construction jobs: better windows, better lighting, more insulation—and more professional “testers” to assure ducts and buildings don’t leak. Thus these new codes help increase manufacturing jobs for Texas companies that provide  these products and services.

There are also real on-the-ground studies. That is, actual measurements of homes built in Texas, and analysis of how much real energy and money savings result from the main benefits of the new codes—lighting, ceiling insulation, better building envelope, improved duct leakage, and improved wall insulation. The results are part of a national Department of Energy funded eight-state study. In Texas, SPEER and SECO are working with the National Association of State Energy Officials to implement the study, and with some surprising results. The main one: complying with building codes saves a lot of energy and money.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has analyzed the data collected in the study and calculated the energy savings from the five high potential savings measures listed above. The savings are calculated for each of the three climate zones in Texas and assume that the same number of homes will be built as in 2014, a conservative no growth scenario. Big savings—more than $15 million in one year, and enough energy to mean a gas peaking plant will run efficiently using 10 percent less.

Keep in mind the study only looks at new single-family homes, and does not try to capture the electricity savings from new apartment buildings or new commercial buildings. There are also large water and natural gas savings because of these measures. For example, the same data estimates that Texans would save over $7 million in gas savings over the course of a year by living in these new “improved” homes.

This year, the state of Texas will be updating minimum energy codes for all new residential, commercial, and state constructed buildings. What this will mean is less air pollution, less energy used, less water and natural gas used, more jobs, and more money saved. The caveat: We must make sure our cities get these codes implemented properly.

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Cyrus Reed, Ph.D., is conservation director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter. He has also served as Sierra Club's lobbyist on energy and air quality issues during the 2005 and 2007 Texas legislative sessions, and directed the Texas Center for Policy Studies, an environmental policy and advocacy organization based in Austin. Cyrus has a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Texas at Austin, with a focus on water policy and the dispute over the Rio Grande water with Mexico. For more information, follow Cyrus on Twitter @CyrusTx.

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The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "The Economic Argument for Environmental Protection," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation.





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