Minnesota would accelerate its adoption of commercial building codes and put new large buildings on a path toward using 80% less energy by 2036 under legislation awaiting the governor’s signature.
The building code measure passed last week amid a wave of climate and clean energy proposals that also includes major investments in weatherization, public transit, and electric vehicle incentives.
“New construction provides a fantastic opportunity because it’s a blank slate for us to get it right,” said Katie Jones, program and policy manager for the Center for Energy and Environment, a Minneapolis nonprofit that administers several weatherization and energy efficiency programs.
The legislation had been debated for several years before clean energy organizations, unions, utilities and industry representatives came together to support it this session. The bill was crafted to help the state meet goals in Minnesota’s Climate Action Framework.
The legislation would require the state’s commercial building energy code to achieve an 80% or greater reduction in annual net energy consumption by 2036 as compared to a 2004 model code baseline measure. The Department of Labor and Industry, which administers building codes, would also be expected to more rapidly implement the latest commercial building energy codes starting in 2024.
The state’s commercial code covers larger multifamily projects but not single-family homes or smaller residential properties.
While buildings represent around 40% of emissions in the United States, they often are responsible for more than half of emissions in cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, Jones said. The changes should help lower residents’ energy bills, including people who live in apartments, she said.
Eric Fowler, senior policy associate for buildings at Fresh Energy, publisher of Energy News Network, said the 2036 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from new buildings by 80% moves Minnesota toward “near zero” for new building emissions.
“This puts us on a path to meaningfully reducing the energy intensity of new commercial buildings, to better prepare the state to meet our climate goals and make reasonable improvements to building performance,” he said.
The energy code allows for flexibility, he said, and does not require building owners to use renewable energy. Instead, the regulation requires that buildings “be sipping rather than guzzling that energy” they use, Fowler said.
Housing First Minnesota, which represents homebuilders and remodelers, is among the industry groups that supported the commercial code legislation. Nick Erickson, Housing First’s senior director of housing policy, said the commercial energy code continues the state’s focus not just on efficiency but also on “safety, durability and affordability.”
Simona Fischer, director of sustainable practice at MSR Design and co-chair of the Committee on the Environment for the American Institute of Architects’ Minnesota chapter, said many architects would embrace adopting new commercial energy codes more quickly.
“The reason that we want to adopt more recent energy codes is that the more recent codes are better at setting a building up for efficiency and resilience,” she said.
Building to a higher standard will save money and prepare structures for extreme weather events caused by global warming, Fischer said. Constructing buildings to older codes, for example, can lead to costly repairs and underperformance, she said.
Upgrading commercial energy codes faster should unlock federal government tax credits and funding sources available in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Fischer said.
The bill also requires the Department of Labor and Industry commissioner to offer a report to the Legislature the year after the most recent commercial energy code adoption. Utilities can claim energy savings in projects as part of the state’s Conservation Improvement Program.
Minnesota’s building codes, and those of other states, are based on regulations developed by the national organization ASHRAE — the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers — and other groups. The latest commercial energy code is ASHRAE 90.1-2022 edition. The state also incorporates codes from the International Energy Conservation Code.
Minnesota’s code first goes through the Department of Labor and Industry’s Construction Codes Advisory Council. The process, which typically takes more than a year, involves gathering input from stakeholders before the department releases a code customized for Minnesota’s building community. The state will begin using the ASHRAE 90.1-2019 commercial energy code starting in 2024.
Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign the legislation in the coming days.