Northeast Sustainable Energy Association Steps Up Engagement with Public Policy

By Andrew Vivitsky on 3/20/2017

Expanding Focus.

Architects, engineers and builders are steadfastly focused on their specialized mission of creating a sound built environment. It is thus remarkable to see a leading alliance of the building sector, the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA), refocus their efforts on a new goal: proactive engagement with public policy for clean and efficient energy.

The BuildingEnergy 2017 Conference in Boston on March 7-9 organized by NESEA was the venue for publicizing a new strategic plan, embracing a commitment to advocacy and the policy process.  The typical conference program of design, technical, and business solutions integrated added content on government policy as a lever for achieving sustainability goals.  With the retreat from environmental policy by the Trump Administration, NESEA’s initiative can be applauded as a timely effort to address a looming gap. Although the initiative will take several months to take full shape, the alliance is well-positioned to make an impact.

Since its founding in 1974 NESEA has been a platform for networking and exchange of know-how for the building sector in the six New England states plus New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. The organization’s annual flagship conferences in Boston and New York feature workshops and presentations by specialists on a range of current topics. The yearly gatherings include exhibitions of products and services, convening thousands of practitioners and companies from the region. Over the years NESEA membership has done much to drive energy efficiency and carbon reduction in the north-eastern states.

High-Performance Building Systems.

Popular workshops at the Boston conference included those devoted to high performance building systems, reflecting growing interest in robust standards for both new construction and retrofits. A standing room only session on “Net Zero Energy (NZE) and Living Building Challenge (LBC)”, two established models, heard consultants, engineering firms and architects address challenges of overcoming client uncertainty. Case studies highlighted cost-benefit arguments while communication strategies were presented for opening clients to a broader view of project goals. Examples included mainly institutional and public buildings, reflecting slower uptake of ZNE and LBC by commercial construction.

Filling a large auditorium was the session on “Multi-Family Passive Buildings” presented by Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS). The high performance PHIUS system, adapted from a German model, has gained traction in many U.S. states and cities based on its positive record. Government agencies have adopted this standard for affordable and market housing, often supporting projects with technical assistance and funding. PHIUS officials gave an overview the core design principles, certification process and offered convincing performance data from exemplary buildings.

The Leverage of Public Policy.

Making the important case for the leverage of policy were two workshops on March 8th.  At “Energy Codes and Zero Energy Buildings,” the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) reported on the strong impact of the Stretch Code (higher norms adopted voluntarily by cities) and renewable energy provisions in the base state building code. From the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources (RIOER), we learned about the market accelerating benefits of their building energy labeling program and integration of clean energy norms in the state code. The Building Codes Assistance Project (BCAP) from Washington D.C. traced the positive trajectory of the national Model Energy Codes from 1975 to 2015, emphasizing the need for heartland states to achieve parity of standards with of the more progressive coastal states.

The session on “Zero Energy and Affordability” highlighted initiatives of the Massachusetts DOER to promote and incentivize high-performance building. Reviewed were advances in the state solar rebates program, outcomes of a major energy storage initiative, and a new PACE program for financing energy retrofits. A progress report on the Pathways to Net Zero programs of grants for pilot projects offered data on technologies and designs impacting efficiency outcomes. An insightful presentation on state rebates and tax credits for installation of efficiency equipment illustrated significant incentives which can drive down the cost of projects.

The Challenges.

NESEA companies and practitioners continue to explore strategies for achieving sorely needed increased levels of impact.  According to the Net Zero Energy Coalition in 2016, there were all of 3,339 NZE buildings in the U.S., of which 219 were in Massachusetts, 212 in Connecticut, and 85 in New York. In 2016, PHIUS reported not more than 1.1 million sq. ft. of certified or pre-certified space distributed across 1,200 residential units nationwide. These outcomes leave little doubt about the need to achieve greater scale in sustainability of the U.S. built environment. With buildings consuming 39% of total energy and accounting for 38% of carbon emissions, the scope of the challenge cannot be underrated.

State policy, which enacts measures for upgrading building standards on one hand and incentivizing voluntary high performance on the other, is increasingly recognized as a key accelerator. The 2016 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard published by the American Council for and Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) correlates ratings of the top five states (California, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) with robust their policies, including building codes, efficiency rating of buildings, and state-led financial incentives. 

By undermining the Clean Power Plan and CAFÉ vehicle emissions standards, the Trump Administration is set to deplete two mainstays of the U.S. commitments to the UN Paris Climate Accords. Experts at research institutions are looking for strategies for states to double down on their climate policies to offset withdrawal by Washington. 

Andrew Vitvitsky is a Cambridge-based environmental journalist and affiliate of the MIT Climate Colab.

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