A proposal that would require new commercial construction projects in Massachusetts to use only renewable energy has opponents and proponents drawing a line in the sand.
Supporters say the “zero net energy” proposal is needed to address global warming more quickly. Opponents argue that there is not sufficient technology and capacity to increase electrification to meet the demand.
Opponents also say the proposal would greatly diminish housing development during the state’s housing crisis and that electricity bills for tenants would skyrocket.
A net zero energy building is one for which the total energy used annually is equal to the amount of renewable energy created on-site or close by, consequently contributing less overall greenhouse gas to the atmosphere than similar non-ZNE buildings.
“As housing costs continue to skyrocket, we need more housing. To add an additional cost to housing production is essentially a barrier … We’ll see a slowdown in housing production,” said Tamara Small, CEO of Needham-based NAIOP, the state’s commercial real estate development association. NAIOP has about 1,700 members in Massachusetts.
The proposal basically requires new commercial construction and significant commercial renovations to generate as much renewable energy as needed on-site. What can’t be generated on-site can be purchased off-site.
Only energy from solar, wind and hydro would be allowed. The use of all fossil fuels, including natural gas, propane, oil, coal and wood pellets, would be banned. While the proposal is primarily for commercial construction, it would affect some housing as well. The exemptions are single-family houses, multifamily homes of three stories or less, and mobile and modular homes.
Small said electrification is not feasible in many cases, particularly in projects over 10 stories. Also, the grid is not all that clean. A tiny percentage of it is powered with renewable energy. But most of the energy comes from fossil fuels.
Small said some wealthier communities are considering local net zero proposals. Brookline’s ban on fossil fuel connections on new construction and significant renovations takes effect in one year, Small said. The issue is also a major part of the debate among the Democratic presidential candidates.
Karen DiVerdi, owner of Enchanted Fireside, a fireplace business at 728 West Boylston St. in Worcester, is among a growing group of opponents to the proposal, which she calls “ill-conceived.” She has started an online petition and has sent a letter of opposition to the governor and legislative leaders as well as the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards, which promulgates the state building code.
DiVerdi has pointed out that developers and residents already have a choice of net zero energy construction. Making it a law would hand lobbyists a financial windfall at the expense of taxpayers and erase freedom of choice.
Such a law, she said, would be “a state-mandated prohibition of comfort and backup heating options, including gas, propane, wood and pellet stoves, which would prove catastrophic in the event of a prolonged power outage.”
The proposal was written by the American Institute of Architects and submitted to the International Code Council to be considered for codes being compiled for 2021. All 50 states adopt some version of ICC’s residential, commercial and other codes.
The AIA’s Massachusetts Chapter in November also submitted the proposal to the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards for consideration for inclusion in the 10th edition of the state’s building code.
John J. Nunnari, executive director of the state AIA chapter, said the BBRS had worked for more than a year on the new edition, based on amending the ICC’s 2018 base codes. But in June, at the request of the Baker administration, the BBRS agreed to table all of its Advisory Committee work and base the 10th edition on the impending ICC’s 2021 base codes.
Nunnari, who handles regulatory and advocacy work on behalf of AIA members in Massachusetts and presented the national AIA’s proposal to the BBRS, said the BBRS also tasked its Energy Advisory Committee with determining a description of net zero energy and how the net zero proposal would work in the Stretch Building Code.
Massachusetts in 2009 became the first state to adopt a “stretch code,” an enhancement to its base building energy code that provides for more energy-efficient construction. To be designated as a Green Community, municipalities have to comply with the stretch code. While the stretch code initially resulted in a 10% jump in energy efficiency, that has decreased after two subsequent editions of the code, in part because the base energy code has gotten more efficient.
“Now about 80% of the 351 cities and towns have become designated as Green Communities. A good majority are saying we need to take the next step, which is net zero,” Nunnari said. This would be another tool in their quest toward mandating a higher level of energy efficiency, he added.
The hope, he said, is if ICC agrees to include the proposal in its 2021 documents, all 50 states would have the opportunity to adopt the net zero regulation or amend it to their liking. California, he noted, has already imposed a net zero energy requirement for new residential and commercial buildings by 2030. Similar regulations are being considered by several other states and regions, he said.
The proposal has the backing of several hundred organizations.
John Couture, chair of the 11-member BBRS, who said the proposal has a lot of problems, said he could probably find as many or more opponents. He said a decision is at least several months away. The BBRS at its monthly meeting on Dec. 17 asked the Energy Advisory Committee to review the proposal, including the cost, feasibility and legality.
“They’ll review it and it will come back to us and depending on how it comes back, the board (members) will vote up or down on whether they want it or to go with a different path on it,” Couture said Wednesday.
“We’re in some real uncharted territory. Everybody wants to do the right thing with the environment,” he said. “I hope in the future when we look back in 20 years, we did what made sense and we didn’t put people out of business and harm residents.”
Couture, who has chaired the BBRS the past three years, lives in Oakham and has been part-time building inspector in North Brookfield and full-time inspector in Sutton for 20 years.
He said looking at the proposal he does not see where there is a reduction in carbon or energy. “We’re just changing where we’re getting it,” he said. He also pointed out that there is a significant cost increase associated with the proposal.
“For very wealthy communities, this isn’t a big deal. But there are other communities where this would be huge. They’re choosing between food, medicine and heat,” he said. “The conversation begins here and we’ll see where it goes. I want to make sure we do the right thing for everybody.”
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