2022 | Green

County officials unveil legislation to require electricity as the sole energy source for new buildings

New construction and major renovations would be subject to law, with some exceptions

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Lindsey Shaw (at podium), chief of the energy and climate section within the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, speaks at a news conference near White Oak on Monday. Shaw and others were touting legislation that focuses on decarbonizing the construction of new buildings, along with major renovations of current buildings.

Photo By Steve Bohnel

This story was updated at 12:05 p.m. June 14, 2022, to reflect Lindsey Shaw’s new title within the county’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Standing a hundred yards or so from a pile of rubble and old bricks in a parking lot near White Oak, Mike Tidwell said that local politicians like County Executive Marc Elrich and County Council Member Hans Riemer often get blamed for a lot. Whether it’s bad traffic, potholes in the streets or other day-to-day issues that bother residents, county leaders hear about it, he said.

But on Monday, Tidwell — founder and director of the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network — joked that the two would be to “blame” for the positive effects of proposed county legislation that would require the construction of new buildings to use all-electric sources of energy. Those effects include lower electric bills, healthier air quality indoors, and other beneficial impacts.

“Mandating that all new buildings be all electric is nationally significant,” Tidwell said of the bill.

Tidwell joined Elrich, Riemer and other partners for a news conference at the former Holly Hall apartment site to show an example of the type of project that the legislation could encourage.

The project, Hillandale Gateway, will feature a mixed-use, mixed income community with 463 all-electric units in two residential buildings and about 20,000 square feet of retail space. It will include 1.2 megawatts of on-site solar generation and new technologies designed to reduce the carbon footprint.

Shane Pollin, principal of PS Ventures, a developer that focuses on building environmentally sustainable structures, said in an interview that one of the residential buildings, which will include 155 units, will be zero-net energy, which means it will produce as much energy as it consumes on an annual basis.

PS Ventures is working with Duffie Cos., a developer based in Colesville, to build the project, and the Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) is providing financial assistance, officials said Monday. Zachary Marks, chief real estate officer for the HOC, said that $5.6 million will be spent on the multifamily building, and about $5 million on the age-restricted building, The latter will have 155 units.

Marks said that the project will roughly cost in the “low $200 millions.” The HOC will also issue about a $35 million loan from its Housing Production Fund toward the project, he added.

The county’s Planning Department approved the site plan for the project in February 2021.

The legislation for decarbonizing buildings will be introduced at Tuesday’s County Council meeting. It will focus on new construction along with any major renovations of current buildings, which includes “any renovation where the work area exceeds 50% or more of major structural components, including exterior walls, interior walls, floor area, roof structure, or foundation, or has an increase of 50% or more of floor area,” according to the bill.

Riemer noted during Monday’s news conference that there are exemptions in the bill, including buildings that focus on manufacturing and production, crematories, life sciences, and commercial kitchens. The bill also exempts the emergency backup power sources of buildings from being decarbonized, such as generators. 

Lindsey Shaw, chief of the energy and climate section within the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said in an interview the bill “lays the groundwork” for getting more buildings to decarbonize and go fully electric. Montgomery County is the first jurisdiction in Maryland to draft this kind of legislation, she added.

Shaw said other private sector partners should be looking at the work that PS Ventures is doing to decarbonize new buildings — not only to combat climate change, but also create a healthier environment for their residents.

“Once [Hillandale] is in the ground … we can then do building tours and then show other developers, architects, designers, that this type of construction is possible,” Shaw said. “It’s not some pie-in-the-sky type of technology anymore, it’s happening now.” 

Shaw said one of the main barriers for developers is there is no incentive to change the fuel source for a building. There is some state legislation in the works that aims to address that, she added.

In an interview, Pollin said that one of the reasons he and partners look at making buildings energy efficient is because they work with high-performance engineers, planners and others that know a lot about newer building technologies.

It takes more research, but the technology is out there now, Pollin added.

“The most challenging component is probably heating water,” Pollin said. “That’s the stronghold of gas, as the last [utility] piece to fall, but even those technologies are available now … for us, it was an easy decision, we picked [an] air-source heat pump [for] water.”

Those devices are also subsidized by Pepco, the local utility, and are less expensive to operate, he added.

During Monday’s press conference, advocates for the bill spoke of the need to move away from gas as a way to heat and cook, as it creates emissions in homes and can lead to leaks that eventually lead to explosions.

Elrich himself said that he recently installed solar panels on his home in Takoma Park, and joked that outside days when it rains or there’s limited sun to provide solar power, it’s been a good transition.

In an interview, he said that even though his legislation — which will be introduced by Riemer, the lead sponsor, at Tuesday’s meeting — focuses on getting the private sector to decarbonize buildings, developers must also be part of the solution to making new construction more energy efficient. 

“When you get companies like this doing a project of this scale, you can’t argue that it can’t be done,” Elrich said, referencing Hillandale Gateway. “These guys, they make money on their projects, they’re not doing it as a charitable project.”

Elrich said the Hillandale Gateway project and new Marriott hotel and headquarters in Bethesda are examples of how new development can still combat climate change. And it needs to happen, because of the building sector’s impact on the issue, he added. County officials estimate about 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are due to residential and commercial buildings.

“Whether it’s our goal or anybody’s goal, you will not achieve zero [net emissions] in any year, unless you deal with this sector,” Elrich said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s 2035, 2045, or 2050. If this doesn’t happen, then you don’t ever get to the goal.”  

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