Energy Efficiency, Regulation - September 25, 2019 - By Maria Stamas, Pierre Delforge, NRDC
San José Adopts Strongest Building Code Among Large Cities
San José has successfully reached for a modern, more sustainable building energy code; its City Council voted today to adopt requirements for builders that will provide San José residents with clean, affordable energy in buildings and make good on the city’s promise to lead on sustainability.
While San José’s new ordinance will make it the largest U.S. City to require construction of electric buildings, the city is not alone. A wave of California cities are taking action locally to make good on their climate commitments.
Today’s vote was supported by an environmental grant from The Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge (ACCC), which helped the electrification and decarbonization effort by providing deep technical assistance from the New Buildings Institute and NRDC, among others. The city was also encouraged to be as ambitious as possible in the face of the climate crisis by a range of youth activists, builders, parents, and environmental groups, including Sierra Club, Menlo Spark, Mothers Out Front, 350 Silicon Valley, Building Decarbonization Coalition, and more.
What is included in San José’s Reach Code?
San José’s reach code aims to make zero-emission electric buildings—where all equipment such as heaters and water heaters are powered by clean renewable electricity—the default in San José. Following adoption of the ordinance today and a forthcoming ordinance directed by City Council for an October vote, greenhouse gas emissions of San José’s new buildings will be cut by 90 percent.
The companion ordinance in October will require all new municipal buildings to be all-electric, as well as requiring this of all new single-family and low-rise multi-family housing.
For high-rise and commercial buildings, San José’s new code encourages electric construction, while still leaving flexibility to build with gas. That said, buildings heated by gas will need to meet higher energy efficiency requirements. They will also need to provide the necessary electric infrastructure to easily switch to electric appliances later, to protect consumers from higher gas bills and retrofit costs in future years.
The code also adopts significant electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure requirements, enabling EV owners to charge their cars when parking at home, at the workplace, or around town. San José already has the biggest EV market share in the country. With additional places to charge up, and more visibility for EV charging infrastructure, even more San José residents will have the opportunity to purchase EVs and easily fuel them.
The new EV charging requirements specify that, all new multi-family buildings must include 70 percent of electric vehicle-capable spaces, at least 20 percent of electric vehicle-ready spaces, and at least 10 percent of full electric vehicle service equipment spaces.
Lastly, the code promotes solar photovoltaic (PV) technology in homes and other buildings by requiring all buildings to be solar-ready, meaning they have the capacity to install solar PV technology in the future.
How does the Reach Code relate to existing housing and climate policies in San José?
Last year, the San José City Council approved a climate action plan to fulfill the goals of the international Paris Climate Agreement. The plan calls for a transition to renewable energy, energy-efficient housing and commercial buildings, and better transportation options such as EVs—all policies supported by the Reach Code under consideration.
The climate action plan also includes making homes more affordable. Electric homes and apartment buildings are cheaper to build and operate, and can reduce utility bills for owners and renters. Incentives also exist at the state and local levels for affordable housing developers, particularly to support the incorporation of EV charging infrastructure.
However, Mayor Liccardo and City Council pushed further on affordability, directing staff to return in March to apprise them of all available and new incentives for solar and battery storage, electric vehicle infrastructure, and electric appliances in affordable housing developments. They also provided a hardship exemption on the EV infrastructure requirements for permanent supportive housing and housing built for very-low-income residents (up to 30 percent of area median income) while encouraging staff to re-examine expensive parking minimum requirements, especially for affordable housing.
Overall, electrified homes also protect residents from rapidly rising gas costs and from the costs of retrofitting a home to convert to clean heating and hot water in the future.
How will the Reach Code affect San José residents?
From cleaner air and less climate pollution to more affordable homes and lower utility bills, the Reach Code will create a safer, greener, and more affordable San José. Today, the majority of homes that use gas have indoor air pollution levels that would be illegal outdoors. This leads to asthma and other illnesses, especially for children. Zero-emission electric buildings will keep our air cleaner and our kids healthier—and reduce San José’s contribution to the global climate crisis. We’ll also be safer during earthquakes, when ruptured gas pipelines are the primary causes of explosions and fires.
It’s not just safety at stake. The Reach Code will also save renters and homeowners money through lower utility bills, when using modern super high-efficiency electric technology — powered by renewable energy that is becoming more affordable — and as buildings generate more of their own power through solar technology. In contrast, gas prices are projected to rise steeply in California as gas utilities have to invest massive amounts on pipeline safety upgrades.
San Jose’s ordinance is a reach code, meaning it’s a local building energy code that “reaches” beyond the state minimum requirements for energy use in building design and construction. Cities and counties across California are filing their reach codes with the California Energy Commission for approval this fall, to go into effect when the state updates its own energy code in January 2020.
Today’s vote positions San José as the leader among large U.S. cities on heating electrification and electric vehicle infrastructure in new construction, putting the city on track to a cleaner, greener, healthier and more affordable future.
This column originally appeared as a blog post at NRDC.org on September 18, 2019.
Maria Stamas is Western Director, Energy Affordability, NRDC. Pierre Delforge is Senior Scientist, Building Decarbonization, Climate & Clean Energy Program, NRDC.