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Legislators want to block rules for more energy efficient homes until 2031

Republican lawmakers and the state's Building Code Council are in disagreement over a proposal to update state energy efficiency standards for new home construction.
David Boraks
Republican lawmakers and the state's Building Code Council are in disagreement over a proposal to update state energy efficiency standards for new home construction.

There's a battle in Raleigh over energy efficiency standards and building codes that has implications for both North Carolina's climate change efforts and the short- and long-term costs of homeownership.

A section of the state building code requires builders to use energy efficiency measures in new construction. The state Building Code Council wants to bring the rules up to international standards. Things like walls, roofs, insulation, windows and heating and cooling systems would have to meet stricter requirements for energy efficiency. This only affects new buildings and homes — not existing ones. And it could save money on your energy bill.

The state is supposed to review building codes every six years to keep them up to date, and that's what the Building Code Council is doing. It's important because our state — both the legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper — has goals for reducing the heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming. The state is promoting a shift to cleaner energy production. But another often-overlooked tactic is to just use less energy.

"Energy efficiency is the least-cost energy resource. Increasing energy efficiency basically reduces the total investments that the utilities have to make, making it the cheapest way to meet energy needs for customers," said Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "And from an environmental perspective, we always talk about the electron that you do not use is the greenest electron."

But when it comes to energy conservation, the South lags. Smith's organization said in a report last month that utilities and regulators across the region have historically "underinvested and deprioritized" energy efficiency. That pushes up electricity usage and customers' monthly bills.

On one side of this debate is the North Carolina Building Code Council, whose members are appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

On the other side is the homebuilding industry and its allies in the Republican-controlled legislature. Under state law, lawmakers can overrule the building council on matters like this. There's a bill under consideration in both the House and Senate right now that would delay any new energy efficiency code updates until 2031. The bill also makes other changes, including reorganizing the Building Code Council into separate residential and commercial councils, appointed by both the governor and the legislature.

Kim Wooten, an electrical engineer from Durham who chairs the subcommittee that drafted the new standards, acknowledges that the legislature has the right to second-guess the council. But she objects to delaying the proposed update to the state rules. She said the council's plan to incorporate 2021 international standards is about modernizing state rules that are still based on the international code that goes back to 2009, with minor updates.

"What this proposed bill does is limit the options that are available to homeowners and homebuilders to have safe, energy effective, cost effective homes from now through 2031," Wooten said.

Wooten said the bill also could make it harder for North Carolina to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants through FEMA, the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey has expressed similar concerns. A spokesman for Causey said delaying building code updates another eight years could disqualify cities and counties from federal Building Resilient Infrastructure Program (BRIC) grants.

"In addition, we are concerned about the long-term consequences to the citizens through adverse effects on insurance rates. This could be caused by essentially creating a residential code that could age 16 years before the next adoption/update cycle would be allowed by law," the spokesman said.

The fight over energy efficiency standards is another case of legislative Republicans pushing back against Cooper's climate policies. Although the two sides reached a landmark compromise on energy reform in 2021, energy efficiency appears to be a tougher issue.

The powerful North Carolina Home Builders Association — one of the biggest political donors at the statehouse — is leading opposition to any updates. The bill's lead sponsor is Representative Mark Brody, a Republican who represents Anson and Union Counties — and a homebuilder himself.

"Here's the main issue: It's just too expensive to inflict that onto the public, and the, you know, the homebuilding industry and the major remodeling industry," Brody said.

The Home Builders Association said its own study found that the average increase statewide in the cost of a single-family home would be $20,400.

"That's just too much. So we said, we said no, you cannot do that. You cannot put that code in," Brody said.

The State Building Council, in its presentations and discussions, has a competing study — completed by the federal Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Wooten acknowledged the proposed code update would add to the cost of new homes, but says that study found that prices would not rise as much as homebuilders say.

"This proposed energy code for North Carolina is going to result in a cost increase of somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000. It's not the $20,000 that the homebuilders are saying, which number, by the way, includes $3,400 of pure profit," Wooten said.

Meanwhile, the study for the building council estimated that the code update would save owners of new single-family homes an average of 19% on their energy bills, or about $400 a year. It also would eliminate about 131,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, equal to removing about 29,000 cars from the road. And it would just make homes more comfortable, less drafty and noisy.

The Building Code Council is supposed to vote on the changes in June. But the bill that could nullify the council's action is making its way through the House. Brody said it's expected to come up at the House Finance Committee in a couple of weeks.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.