Smart Cities

California Continues to Set the Standard for Building Decarbonization

California is a unique place, even within the US. It is home to outstanding natural beauty, with snow-capped mountains, dry deserts, scenic beaches, and unique natural habitats, but also some of the worst environmental problems in the world with wildfires, earthquakes, resource extraction, and urban air pollution. California is also home to several of the biggest companies in the world, if it were a country it would be the sixth-largest national economy, but it is simultaneously the most strictly regulated state in the US. California is especially known for its green regulations, where it has continuously set new standards for vehicles, power generation, and building efficiency in the US. “Other states in the United States contain many attractive natural features as well as abundant natural resources but California is distinctive in one important respect. No other state has enacted so many innovative, comprehensive, and stringent environmental regulations over such a long period of time,” writes UC Berkeley […]

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California is a unique place, even within the US. It is home to outstanding natural beauty, with snow-capped mountains, dry deserts, scenic beaches, and unique natural habitats, but also some of the worst environmental problems in the world with wildfires, earthquakes, resource extraction, and urban air pollution. California is also home to several of the biggest companies in the world, if it were a country it would be the sixth-largest national economy, but it is simultaneously the most strictly regulated state in the US. California is especially known for its green regulations, where it has continuously set new standards for vehicles, power generation, and building efficiency in the US.

“Other states in the United States contain many attractive natural features as well as abundant natural resources but California is distinctive in one important respect. No other state has enacted so many innovative, comprehensive, and stringent environmental regulations over such a long period of time,” writes UC Berkeley professor David Vogel in his 2018 book ‘California Greenin': How the Golden State Became an Environmental Leader’.

“Compared to all other states as well as the federal government, California has been a national leader in regulatory policymaking on issues ranging from forestry management, scenic land protection, air pollution, and coastal zone management to energy efficiency and global climate change,” Vogel continues. “Its distinctive geography, high degree of citizen mobilization, business support for many environmental measures, and steadily growing administrative capacity have produced a continuous stream of environmental policy innovations in multiple areas over a long period of time.”

Building regulations have been a specific area of interest for the state. In 1978, the California Building Standards Commission decided that they needed building energy efficiency standards across the state. The commission called these new standards, "Title 24" and, in part six, it includes a mandate demanding updates on the building energy efficiency standards by the California Energy Commission (CEC), both for new construction and renovations to existing buildings. CEC presented its latest update earlier this month, voting unanimously to adopt changes to the state building energy efficiency standards. The primary target of these new updates was natural gas, specifically encouraging the use of electricity over gas in buildings across the state. 

For commercial buildings, the new update establishes combined solar PV and battery standards for businesses. Systems are sized to maximize onsite use of solar energy and avoid electricity demand during times when the grid must use gas-powered plants. The update specifically targets new efficiency standards for commercial greenhouses, which have been growing rapidly since changes in cannabis legislation. Finally, the updates also improve efficiency standards for commercial building envelopes, various internal systems, and grid integration equipment, such as demand-responsive controls to buoy grid stability. 

For residential properties, the update establishes energy budgets based on efficient heat pumps for space or water heating to encourage builders to install heat pumps over gas-fueled HVAC units. It requires that homes be electric-ready, with dedicated 240-volt outlets, plumbing for water heaters, and appropriate space for electric appliances to eventually replace installed gas appliances. The updates also increase minimum kitchen ventilation requirements so that fans over cooktops have higher airflow or capture efficiency to better exhaust pollution from gas cooking and improve indoor air quality. The reduction of gas in both commercial and residential buildings ultimately paves the way for electric appliances powered by clean renewable energy.

Homes and businesses combined represent nearly 70% of California’s electricity use and are responsible for a quarter of California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but the statewide statistics do not tell the whole story. Despite Californians using 30% less electricity than the average American and having more national parks than any other state, California is home to six of the top ten most polluted cities in the US, including four of the top five. It is those cities, balancing the dirtiest urban ratings within the context of being part of one of the cleanest states, that creates the driving force behind the continuous environmentally-focused regulations we are seeing today. 

“City action has forced the state's hand. Right now, you have a patchwork of regulations across the state, with builders and installers and manufacturers facing different codes and different requirements in sometimes neighboring communities, and they hate that,” said Panama Bartholomy, executive director at the Building Decarbonization Coalition. “So I think the city action and the city leadership has been the biggest forcing function in this effort.”

After the CEC adopts these standards, they are submitted to the California Building Standards Commission for approval and inclusion with other changes to the building code. The Energy Code is designed to be cost-effective so that implementation is affordable while helping California manage energy demand and advance the state’s climate and clean air goals. Over 30 years, starting 2022, it is estimated that the gas-reducing energy code updates will provide $1.5 billion in consumer benefits and reduce 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, equivalent to taking nearly 2.2 million cars off the road for a year.

“In the future, the state could move to ban gas in buildings altogether or to require electric appliances,” said Bartholomy. “With the latest code update, the commission is basically sending a pretty clear signal to the market about where California is going, while giving the market some time to adjust and build up the supply chain."

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