Building technology and energy codes matured greatly during the last two decades making it possible for buildings, which consume 40 percent of the nation’s energy, to be net zero energy users, calling on government to translate technological advances into codes and to incentivize private owners to build and retrofit accordingly.  Local governments have the legal authority can employ strategies needed to significantly reduce per capita energy consumption; a partnership with state and federal governments is beginning to form, which should become a central plank of the nation’s energy platform in the years ahead.

This blog post is based on two of my articles, Shifting Paradigms Transform Environmental and Land Use Law: The Emergence of the Law of Sustainable Development, and Land Use For Energy Conservation and Sustainable Development: A New Path Toward Climate Change Mitigation.

As demographic and market changes attract new population to urban centers, energy consumption per household will decrease, simply because much of the development in those centers is more energy efficient than single-family homes and strip malls in spread-out suburban places. Historically, many urban areas were developed with compact, mixed-use neighborhoods whose apartments, townhouses, two- and three-family houses, and small-lot single-family homes are well under the 2,500 square foot average nationally and, thus, consume less energy for heating and cooling. The dramatic differences in energy consumption and CO2 emissions between the single-family and the mixed-use, higher density land use pattern is due, in large part, to the size of and thermal efficiency of its housing and commercial buildings.

Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for over 70 percent of the electricity consumed domestically, over 40 percent of energy consumption, and over 35 percent of CO2 emissions. Because the U.S. expects over a 30 percent increase in population within 40 years, millions of new homes and billions of square feet of new non-residential buildings will be constructed in the next few decades. By ensuring that new and renovated buildings are as energy-efficient as possible, the significant increase in energy use and CO2 emissions attributable to these new households can be contained.

New and substantially renovated buildings must receive land use approvals and comply with building and energy codes before they can be occupied. There is, therefore, a process and regulatory regime in place that can be enhanced to reduce energy use and emissions. This system involves the enforcement by local governments of state-adopted energy construction codes as developers submit applications to build new buildings or to substantially renovate existing ones. Using their delegated land use authority, localities in many states can enhance state-adopted energy codes, insert energy conservation standards in zoning, subdivision, and site plan regulations, and use the project review and approval process to require that energy conservation construction techniques are used.

Buildings and their occupants use energy in a variety of ways, principally for space heating and cooling, lighting, and water heating—uses that typically constitute about half of the building’s energy usage. These end uses of energy can be reduced by legal standards that require high levels of insulation, energy efficient doors, windows, heating, cooling, and ventilation systems, and that minimize infiltration of outside air. In addition, locally enforced codes and zoning laws can require or encourage passive solar design, energy efficient lighting and appliances, solar water heaters, high-reflectivity roofing materials, strategic tree and other landscape plantings, combined heat and power systems for individual buildings, and district energy systems for multiple buildings.

Energy consumption in buildings can be reduced by on-site renewable energy facilities, such as solar panels and wind turbines located on buildings or on site. Many of these facilities are zoned out under current land use regulations, which were developed before these technologies became popular. Rooftop wind turbines, for example, often exceed height restrictions in zoning codes and on-site solar panels may violate set back restrictions. Individual parcels in most residential neighborhoods cannot be used for small-scale solar facilities because of use restrictions. These zoning limitations are being removed or reformed in many communities, as home and business owners and developers of new housing and commercial buildings seek to add renewable energy facilities to their properties.

These approaches can be integrated into mandatory provisions of local land use laws or they can be employed as recommended protocols during the building review and approval process itself. By departmental practices, mayoral executive order, or a resolution of the city council or town board, a locality can make a commitment to energy conservation and the reduction of carbon emissions. A component of the comprehensive plan can be added by amendment outlining energy conservation goals, objectives, strategies, and implementation measures. This clear articulation of local policy may be enough to empower the local administrative staff and planning commission to require developers of proposed projects to submit an energy conservation plan for their building that goes beyond the standards of the energy code and moves into building design, orientation, and commissioning initiatives that have the potential to create net zero energy buildings.

In the constellation of energy conservation and carbon emission reduction strategies, one of the most important actions is for state and local governments to properly enforce the energy code requirements and to adopt additional standards and incentives for achieving deep energy savings, approaching net zero energy buildings in the years ahead. Federal initiatives that make funding or other incentives available for energy code enforcement, retrofitting existing buildings, and achieving energy efficiency in new structures are needed as buildings are built to house and employ the nation’s growing population. The advent of state- wide and regional cap and trade programs is beginning to provide funding that can be used for these purposes, all of which offset the emissions produced by the industries involved in these programs.