The Ad Hoc Gist: Cracking the Climate Code

The Ad Hoc Gist: Cracking the Climate Code

April 2023

For April, we’re tackling a topic that doesn’t get enough love – building codes. Because, hey, it’s a lot more expensive to retrofit a building than to build it climate-ready in the first place.

Look no further than Berkeley, which just lost a battle in the courts to ban natural gas in new buildings, while cities that used building codes to electrify keep marching on.

Also, ever heard of a building code council? It might be the most important climate body you never knew existed.

If you want to say hi, you can always follow us on Twitter at @adhocgroupinc or on LinkedIn.

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Cracking the Climate Code

Building codes are esoteric, boring, and critically important. Just ask the survivors of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria where poorly built buildings contributed to the outsized death toll. In addition to safety and health, they’re also a key weapon in the climate fight.

Buildings account for 34% of the total US emissions. For cities, it’s as high as 70%. Building codes are foundational; they dictate how energy efficient buildings are, what fuel source they use, and how ready they are to charge your new EV or power your new heat pump.

Building codes also have the benefit of creating durable policy. For example, while the ninth circuit court recently overturned Berkeley’s ordinance banning natural gas in new construction, cities like Santa Rosa that adopted all-electric rules in their building codes remained unaffected.

Like so much else in this country, building codes have also become a political battlefield.

Just look at Boston and Boise.

Massachusetts state law allows its cities the chance for “extra credit” by adopting stretch codes that go even further than the state code. Boston is one of 300 municipalities that have adopted the tougher codes, which require all buildings to be pre-wired for EV charging, as one example.

Out west, Boise elected to have stricter building codes than the rest of Idaho, but then, under pressure from builders, the state legislature passed two bills curtailing Boise’s ability to set more ambitious standards. Now, despite having a city-wide goal to go net zero by 2050, Boise is handcuffed.


Code Councils Matter

While legislatures are important players, code battles are primarily fought at the state level via “building code councils,” which are often appointed by the Governor. These code councils are powerful, but until recently have flown under the radar. Historically, developers and home builders have had outsized influence over these councils. But policy-makers and advocates are waking up to their importance.

Take North Carolina where Governor Cooper overhauled the 17-member council, which is currently working to adopt a more climate-aligned code. If adopted, new homeowners are estimated to save 19% on energy bills and would cumulatively eliminate 131,000 metric tons of CO2 a year.


Startup Solutions 

Part of the battle over building codes is between the impact of new codes on upfront costs versus long-term savings. Builders are worried about pressure on their bottom line, but retrofitting a building to add charging stations or electric heat pumps is much more expensive than incorporating into a building from day one.

Startups are working to help builders meet stricter code requirements and highlight the value of more efficient and electric-ready homes to homebuyers.

UpCodes has a searchable build code platform to help builders working across multiple jurisdictions. Ekotrope assists with home ratings. Aeroseal offers energy efficient products that enable easier certification. SPAN’s smart electric panels can avoid costly utility service upgrades.

Pearl Certification certifies homes energy savings, which can increase home value, helping builders justify prices. Tools like WattBuy estimate a home’s energy costs making energy efficiency savings more transparent.


Cracking the Policy Code 

States are largely in the driver’s seat on building codes. And, thanks to the last Congress, they will now have access to $1.125B to adopt advanced energy codes.

That’s a start.

To ensure new buildings are both efficient and can accommodate more electrical load, states will need to adopt climate-aligned codes. To do that, they should focus on giving code councils a climate mandate and appointing members who are experts at the intersection of buildings, energy, and climate.

For example, Colorado passed a bill last year, to create a state building code council with strong representation from climate experts. It also mandated that municipalities adopt the latest national code if/when they decide to update their existing codes. Colorado is one of several “home rule” states where municipalities have had the authority to set their own codes, so this is a big change.

The code council was also tasked by the legislature to develop additional model codes that will ensure new buildings are solar and EV-ready, so that new apartment buildings, for example, can support a garage full of electric vehicles.

Changing building codes is not enough by itself. States also need to consider putting in place incentives to defray some of the upfront costs associated with electrifying buildings. Washington State, whose code council mandated heat pumps in all new buildings, has included $300 million in electrification incentives in its recently approved budget.

Similarly, when the Minnesota Code Council objected to a Minneapolis ordinance requiring new buildings to install EV chargers, Minneapolis countered by amending the ordinance to offer incentives to developers to install EV chargers. Carrots, not sticks.

State public utility commissions also need to take a look at who pays for installing new gas infrastructure. In many states, builders don’t pay for new gas hook-ups; the utilities socialize the cost across ratepayers.

Remove the gas subsidy, as the California Public Utilities Commission ordered last year, and builders will be more incentivized to electrify.  In the end, aligning the interests of builders and owners is the only way to decarbonize buildings.

News from Our Network

From our clients:

The White House featured SWTCH for deploying EV chargers to underserved communities.

Vice President Harris highlighted the entrepreneurship of Kameale Terry of ChargerHelp!.

SPAN raised $96 million to electrify homes and expand beyond electric panels.

KQED talks to Charm Industrial about the coming carbon removal boom.

MIT Tech Review called Rondo technology “the toaster of the future.”

Canary Media featured and its work with SmartCharge New York.

Therma was selected to the Engage Cohort 11 to optimize energy inefficient assets.


From friends and colleagues:

Frontier Carbon added $100 million in new commitments to buy carbon dioxide removals.

Congruent Ventures raised another $300 million to support Series B and C investments.

20+ VC firms formed the Venture Climate Alliance focused on getting to net-zero.

Forbes featured Equatic’s ability to suck CO2 out of the ocean and in turn, use its byproduct of hydrogen. Whoa!

Jobs in our network: 

Send us your job openings in cleantech policy, startups, and utilities, and we'll put them in next month's Gist.

Aeroseal: Product Manager Project Manager, Integrations

Krakenflex team at Octopus Energy: Energy Markets Manager

Project Canary: Director of Product Marketing

Rubi Labs: Chief of Staff and

Bidgely: Senior Customer Manager

Energy Impact Partners: Associate

AEE: Policy Principal - Regulatory

Moxion Power: Director of Public Policy and Business Development

Pano: Director, Utility & Energy Sales

Find us:

Getting to Net Zero Forum (Minneapolis, MN, May 11)
Anjana Agarwal will be attending

Energy Impact Partners'  Annual Meeting (Dana Point, CA, May 17-18)
Jim Kapsis and James Schulte will be attending


Sam Bauer (far right) from The Ad Hoc Group and Sam D'Amico of Impulse (second from left) speaking at Milan Design Week. Photo Credit: James Melia, founder of blond.