Changes Coming in 2023 to State Energy Code and Green Building StandardsOctober 26, 2022
In late 2021, the California Energy Commission approved updates to California’s Building Energy Efficiency Standards (Energy Code), which regulate energy and water efficiency for newly constructed buildings. The Commission also approved energy-related updates to the California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen), which both mandates and encourages sustainable construction practices. Both sets of updated standards take effect on January 1, 2023. This article describes the state’s building energy standards framework, including the relationship between the Energy Code and related CALGreen provisions. It also summarizes the forthcoming changes to both codes, and discusses how local agencies can accelerate energy efficiency beyond state mandates.
California’s Building Energy Standards Framework
California’s Energy Code is updated every three years and contains two categories of requirements:
- A set of mandatory requirements that apply to every building.
- In addition to the mandatory requirements, each building must meet a particular energy efficiency standard based on details like building type and the climate zone in which the building is located. Compliance can be achieved in two ways.
- First, a building can follow the Code’s prescriptive standards, which specify baseline designs and technologies that guarantee compliance no matter the building’s location.
- Alternatively, a building can comply through performance standards, which are met if the building can reach an energy budget equal to or less than the budget of a building that enacts the prescriptive standards.
By taking a prescription-or-performance approach, the Code sets a baseline for energy efficiency while providing flexibility for developers to determine the most cost-effective option for themselves. And by updating the standards every three years, the Commission keeps the state on the cutting edge of building decarbonization.
CALGreen contains both mandatory and voluntary provisions. The mandatory energy provisions defer entirely to the Energy Code, meaning that developers comply with CALGreen if they comply with the Energy Code standards. However, local agencies may choose to adopt CALGreen’s voluntary provisions, which exceed certain Energy Code standards. Aside from providing a template for local agencies desiring to achieve greater building energy efficiency, CALGreen’s voluntary energy provisions typically forecast the standards expected to be included in the next Energy Code update.
The Updated Standards
The Energy Code updates include four main categories of changes:
- Establishing heat pumps as a baseline technology: The new standards encourage the use of heat pumps, especially in residential space heating. Heat pumps will now serve as the exclusive prescriptive technology for dwelling unit space heating in nearly all new multifamily homes. The same is true for new single family homes in certain climate zones, including San Francisco (Zone 3), many localities in the East and South Bay (Zones 3 and 4), coastal communities between Marin County and Monterey County (Zone 3), and inland areas throughout the Central Valley and Southern California (Zones 13 and 14).
- Reducing gas health risks by improving ventilation: Commensurate with the growing awareness surrounding the negative health impacts of gas appliances, the new standards strengthen ventilation requirements based on fuel type and floor area.
- Making homes electric-ready: Even single-family homes that install gas infrastructure must include electrical circuits for space heating, water heating, ovens, and clothes dryers. Single-family homes must also be backup storage-ready in anticipation of technological advances in solar energy storage, including electrical panels, branch circuits, and transfer switches for battery storage.
- Expanding solar power: The standards also accelerate building decarbonization by adding prescriptive standards for minimum solar photovoltaic and battery energy storage capacity for high-rise multifamily and commercial buildings, including office buildings, grocery stores, and schools.
The Commission estimates that these and other changes to the Energy Code will reduce 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gases over the next 30 years, the equivalent of taking nearly 2.2 million cars off the road for a year.
The CALGreen updates are limited to voluntary provisions for energy efficiency in new single family homes. Whereas the current code provides two “tiers” of voluntary compliance measures from which a local agency may choose (the second tier more stringent than the first), the updates provide just a single tier. Among other requirements, to meet the updated voluntary standards, a single family home must include a minimum of two listed efficiency measures, including heat pump water heater demand management, roof deck insulation, battery storage systems, and compact hot water distribution systems.
What the Updates Mean for Local Agencies
Local agencies may either adopt the new Energy Code or set stronger local standards, known as “reach codes.” Before adopting a reach code, the agency must determine that the local standards are cost-effective and that local conditions make the stronger standards reasonably necessary. The Commission must also find that the proposed standards will require buildings to consume less energy than permitted by the statewide standards. Some agencies choose to adopt CALGreen’s voluntary provisions in lieu of unique reach codes, while others incorporate voluntary provisions within their reach codes.
According to the Commission, 42 localities adopted reach codes during the 2019 Energy Code cycle, most preferring or requiring building electrification where the statewide standards had been flexible. In February 2020, SMW attorneys Ellison Folk and Lauren Tarpey reviewed some notable examples of reach codes. Considering these examples in retrospect shows that local jurisdictions can pave the way for new, more rigorous statewide standards. For example, Menlo Park’s December 2020 reach code mandated that buildings with new gas infrastructure be electric-ready, which the state standards now also mandate. By taking early action, localities can give residents, developers, and businesses a head start on building efficiency standards that could soon be mandated by the state.
For more information, contact SMW attorney Sarah Lucey.