2021 | Government

Legislation intended to improve energy performance in buildings

Bill seen as a key for pursuing county’s climate goals

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As Montgomery County attempts to accomplish its Climate Action Plan goal of reaching zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, the County Council will soon consider an important piece: legislation setting building energy performance standards.

The bill, introduced by Council President Tom Hucker on behalf of County Executive Marc Elrich, sets standards for multiple types of covered buildings, both public and private, to meet the county’s energy goals. 

In the legislation, buildings are grouped based on overall square footage. It sets up a “Building Performance Improvement Board” of 15 members, ranging from utility representatives to building managers to nonprofits dedicated to racial equity and environmental justice. 

If buildings cannot comply with the legislation, they must submit a “building performance improvement plan” to the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, demonstrating potential improvements, financial reasons why goals can’t be met and other details. 

Lindsey Shaw, manager of energy and sustainability programs within the Department of Environmental Protection, said the bill is a follow-up to an “energy benchmarking” law first implemented in May 2014. 

Shaw said energy benchmarking is the process of measuring consumption over time, to reduce “energy waste,” which is “dollars flowing out your window.” She likened it to a person’s financial situation if they don’t properly budget their money.

“So by benchmarking, you’re able to better pinpoint where those areas of waste are,” Shaw said. “You’re able to compare buildings against one another to see how well you’re performing against your own portfolio or your peers.”

The law from 2014 covers commercial, nonresidential buildings that are 50,000 square feet or greater, Shaw said. The building energy performance standards bill expands on it by including smaller square footage buildings of that type, along with multifamily buildings, she said.

There are more financing options for those types of buildings to make energy improvements, whether through the Montgomery County Green Bank or the state’s Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, Shaw said. 

Some building are exempt from the law — buildings in which more than 50% of the total gross floor area is used for: 

  • “public assembly in a building without walls”
  • “industrial uses where the majority of energy is consumed for manufacturing, the generation of electric power or district thermal energy to be consumed offsite, or for other process loads”
  • “transportation, communications, or utility infrastructure”

The legislation uses a metric known as “energy use intensity” (EUI) to better compare buildings of different sizes that would fall under the proposal, Shaw said. EUI measures how efficiently buildings are using their energy. 

A single-family home might have a lower EUI than a multifamily building, and a hospital or laboratory might have a higher EUI than an office building given energy use per square foot, Shaw said.

A civil penalty can be assessed for non-compliance. It would be $500 for a commercial building first offense, and $750 for repeat offenses.

Shaw said county officials want to see those penalties increased, as they might not currently be high enough to get people to comply.

Shaw and Chris Brown, chief of the Office of Energy and Sustainability in the county’s Department of General Services, said the county will lead by example if some version of the legislation passes. 

Brown said some of the challenges are the age of many buildings and that managers get limited opportunities to complete projects to substantially improve energy use in a structure’s lifespan.

“There’s often only so many points in a building’s life cycle that you’ll have a chance for these major interventions to make these improvements,” Brown said. “And I think that’s sort of the hard part, right? You don’t replace the HVAC [system] but every 20 years. … How does the capital get redeployed during a building’s natural life cycle?”

Shaw and Brown said, however, that the county has focused on improving energy use in buildings countywide since the benchmarking law and when the County Council passed a resolution declaring a “climate emergency” in late 2017.

There is still much work to do on the building energy performances standards bill before a final vote, they said. The County Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee will hold multiple sessions on the bill this fall, Shaw said.

County officials are still calculating, based on technical analyses, the “numerical standards” that each type of building must meet for energy use intensity, Shaw said. She and her colleagues hope to have a report by October. 

“Every building is going to start at a different point on that journey,” Shaw said of the standards. “But ultimately, within 12 to 15 or so years, they’re going to have to meet that standard. But we think that within a 12- to 15-year horizon, the majority of existing buildings in Montgomery County will need to undertake a capital improvement.”

Brown said similar bills have been proposed in Boston, Washington, D.C., Washington state and elsewhere.

“There’s not a lot of other mechanisms other than codes that address energy efficiency through major renovations or new construction,” Brown said. “So this is … sort of unique in the approach, that it goes towards the existing buildings that are operating. … I think it’s a tough bill.”

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