2021 | Government

Green construction code, tax credit changes advance county’s climate goals

Measures related to energy use, efficiency are part of Climate Action Plan

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In recent weeks, the Montgomery County Council has passed two climate-focused initiatives: the 2018 International Green Construction Code and amendments to a tax credit program for energy-efficient buildings.

Both are among the policies and practices that county officials have focused on to meet the goals of its Climate Action Plan, released earlier this year. It aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions countywide by 2035, and cut them 80% by 2027.

Bryan Bomer, the sustainability, energy and mechanical manager at the county’s Department of Permitting Services, said in an interview that the International Green Construction Code is a “holistic building code” for new construction. The code applies to all new buildings of more than 5,000 square feet.

The new standards address materials, indoor air quality, energy use and more, Bomer said. The county has particularly focused on the energy section to help reach climate goals laid out in the Climate Action Plan.

One aspect of the code is zero energy performance index, or zEPI. That index shows how well different types of buildings are meeting energy efficiency and performance goals — the lower the score, the better the building is.

Bomer said evaluating different types of buildings and giving them different targets is needed, because they have different devices and appliances throughout, and different energy needs. Hotels/motels have a zEPI target of 50, while office buildings have a target of 39, for example.

Reaching those calculations and others is technical work, and requires several engineers and other partners to finalize, Bomer said.

The goal is to have buildings of each type eventually get to a zEPI score of 0 — meaning they produce as much electricity as they use — over multiple code cycles, which spans several years, he added.

The county wanted to focus more on energy use, versus energy cost, when drafting the code.

“What we don’t want to do is favor an energy source because it’s cheaper at the time. … [We] want to get away from fluctuating values and focus on the source, which is energy, and figure out how to do greenhouse gas reductions from that perspective,” Bomer said.

One aspect of the code that works in tandem with that is “predictive energy modeling.” Bomer said that modeling looks at several components of a building, from time of energy use to the orientation of a structure.

The modeling predicts what a building would use within a certain degree of confidence, he said. The degree of confidence is larger for hospitals and other buildings because of how specialized they are, versus more traditional commercial buildings, Bomer said.

He said some people expressed concerns about the cost of implementing the changes and the time to implement them. Bomer noted that county officials aren’t charged with figuring out construction costs, but point companies and others to nonprofits and organizations who can argue why better construction and energy use is a good decision.

“I would say the overarching concern is cost, but a lot of that stems from implementation, and knowledge and confidence in meeting this [code],” Bomer said.

To help buildings meet those goals, the county has a property tax credit program as an incentive.

Lindsey Shaw, the manager of energy and sustainability programs within the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said in an interview that a law has been in place to incentivize environmentally friendly buildings since 2007.

In the past, savings on county property taxes due to those tax credits can be tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the size, type and location of the building, Shaw said.

The changes to the existing tax credit originally stem from the county adopting the 2012 International Green Construction Code, Shaw said. At that point, officials realized they needed to rescind previously adopted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) construction requirements and implement a new tax credit based on the green construction code.

Even with the new law, building and business owners can still use an “intent to apply application” through the end of 2021 to use the old tax credit, Shaw said. If people may had prior plans, the county will honor those, she said.

To be eligible for the New Building Energy Reduction Tax Credit, buildings must be 10 percent better than the zEPI score. So for a minimum requirement of 50, a building would need to score at least 45 to meet the credit.

“We’re incentivizing buildings to go beyond code, to be more energy-efficient than code,” Shaw said.

Single-family or smaller residential properties are not included in the green construction code. Bomer said it’s more effective to approach larger commercial buildings than residential buildings.

Adriana Hochberg, the county’s climate change officer, said in an interview that the county is aware of potential equity problems in the green construction code and other initiatives. Hochberg said that includes the corresponding building energy performance standards legislation, currently before the County Council.

That bill aims to better those standards for multiple types of buildings by measuring energy use.

“If that legislation passes and existing buildings are required to retrofit, then the county is going to need to provide not only technical assistance, but also financial assistance to challenged sectors, like affordable housing,” Hochberg said. “So, we’re not making it difficult for people who already have tight incomes.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com