The Fall and Rise of Energy Conservation Codes

Energy conservation codes are making a comeback.

Commercial and residential buildings are energy hogs that consume more than 40% of all energy produced in the United States. Almost a third of this is wasted. Since their inception in the 1970s, energy codes have stemmed these losses and reduced the footprint of America’s building stock. They are one of the few tools available to ensure that the spaces where we spend most of our time are constructed to minimum acceptable standards for comfort, cost, and quality. Although mostly unknown outside of the building industry, these codes matter; a lot.

After two decades with only small gains, in the early 2000s the newest model energy codes—those regularly developed by organizations like the International Code Council (ICC) and ASHRAE as examples for policymakers—began to significantly improve in efficiency with each version. A home built to the 2012 residential code developed by the ICC, for instance, is 32% more efficient than a home built to the standard from just six years earlier. These gains may seem abstract, but they mean that a homeowner will pocket anywhere from $218 to $1,588 each year, saving between $4,763 and $33,105 over the life of a typical mortgage.

In recent years, however, this progress has stalled again. Since the peak in 2012 new model codes have only been marginally more efficient than their predecessors. The 2018 and 2015 versions of the residential energy code developed by the ICC combined are less than 3% more efficient than the 2012 edition. Meeting the 2018 code will only save $20 to $59 each year—ten times less than the savings that accrued in the previous six-year cycle. Although there were still plenty of improvements to be made, by 2018 it looked as if model energy codes might relapse to the stagnation of the 1980s and 1990s, when efficiency gains were few and far between.

This decline was reversed in December 2019 after International Code Council voters supported strong energy efficiency standards for the 2021 code. These voters, who are local government representatives, approved new requirements that include pathways to zero energy, preparations for building electrification, more efficient insulation, home charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, more stringent lighting requirements, and first-of-their-kind standards for water heaters. The new code also provides builders with more flexibility than ever before by allowing them to choose from a series of efficiency configurations to demonstrate compliance. These and other measures will make new buildings more efficient than ever before. Even more significant, they have given new life to a code development process where only minimum improvements in efficiency were becoming the rule.

This is not the end of the story, however. In order to fully realize the new opportunities made available by the 2021 code, state and local policymakers must write these standards into law. This will take the partnership of utilities, manufacturers, retailers, builders, and residents to collectively support cutting-edge energy codes that will reduce the energy footprint of America’s buildings, lower costs, and elevate quality.

Questions? Contact William Bryan, built environment project manager


A Service Heart

Danny Kilpatrick and his family.

Danny Kilpatrick’s childhood home in rural Mississippi was frequently warmed by “oven-heat.” He knows first-hand the fear and worry low-income households feel when their monthly utility bills are due. Danny serves a lot of customers in the Mississippi Delta, a region distressed by deep, systemic poverty. “The opportunities here are sparse or nonexistent. Many people can’t go anywhere else.” With his experience in one hand, and his faith in the other, Danny left a steady, corporate career and launched Utility Program Services (UPS) in 2018. UPS provides demand-side management (DSM) measures focused on serving low-income communities. Danny currently serves the customers of Entergy Mississippi, Mississippi Power Co., and Entergy Arkansas. This year, over 92% of their residential deliveries were in homes that received at least one form of assistance.

In 2013, SEEA partnered with the Mississippi Development Authority’s Energy & Natural Resources Division to build support for the adoption of Rule 29: Conservation and Energy Efficiency Programs, establishing Mississippi’s first, state-wide utility energy efficiency programs. The Quick Start phase of the rule encouraged utilities to implement energy efficiency programs in just three years. During that time, Danny was at job he enjoyed and was grateful for, managing business development and DSM programs for ICF International. However, when the Quick Start programs launched in 2014, he envisioned working with customers in a deeper way, beyond the constraints of fixed contracts. “If you have a service heart in the service business, then you’ll do well.” Danny tells the story of a visit with a customer a few months ago, in the height of summer. “She was sitting on her porch when I arrived at 2 p.m. on an August afternoon. I thought her air conditioner was broken, but I learned her electricity bill for July was one-third of her monthly income and she was on the porch because she could not afford to operate her air conditioner.” Danny provided the contracted service, tuning up her HVAC, but right away he noticed the root cause of her high utility bills. Her dryer vent was two feet from the condensing unit, which was coated with lint, and the mercury bulb thermostat was mounted to an uninsulated wall of the air handler closet, which was open to the attic. Knowing the difference it could make in this customer’s life, Danny made the necessary repairs. He says this is the reason he chose to be self-employed, “I just do what I do, and it speaks for itself.” His generosity ripples through his community and his family, a kindness that especially resonates during the holidays. SEEA’s president, Mandy Mahoney, recently received a hand-crafted bird house made by Danny and his daughter. The family tradition started nearly 15 years ago with his eldest son, Ethan after they received a bird house from a family friend. Danny estimates that he and his children have made over 1,200 bird houses. Now in his twenties, Ethan, with his business partner Jeremiah, has started his own energy efficiency business providing weatherization services to low income clients.

Since the adoption of Rule 29, Mississippi’s energy efficiency rank on ACEEE’s State Energy Efficiency Scorecard has risen six spots from 51 to 45, becoming one of the most improved states in the nation.