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Creating Effective Energy Efficiency & Conservation Strategies in Your Community (Part 2 of 2)

KathleenOBrien-web Katie spataroIn looking at communities in general, an EE&C Strategy or Energy Plan will involve considering all of the ways energy is consumed in that community as a starting point, Pie chart 4-19-10 because this will also identify where the opportunities are. In this pie chart, we show just a few opportunities  associated with identifiable sectors of energy consumption.

It will also involve setting a baseline and future requirements for energy consumption and generation. With the EEC Strategy there is a strong interest in tying the effort into local economic development and job creation, so existing conditions in this arena would be helpful as well.

Remove Regulatory Barriers

The “third rail” of existing conditions is the regulatory arena. Communities seeking to establish energy plans may consider the ways in which their codes and regulations present possible barriers to implementing energy efficiency and conservation strategies. Evaluating codes and regulations against EEC Strategy goals is necessary to assess what stands in the way and needs to be either updated or eliminated, as well as what provisions may be missing. Obstacles can exist in the content of land use and development codes, design standards, building and energy codes, as well as in the regulatory process itself. Simply navigating the system for approvals can be off-putting to innovative energy projects.

Common land development code obstacles include provisions that restrict or prohibit onsite renewable energy systems. Height restrictions and setbacks may limit the feasibility of building-mounted systems such as PV or small wind turbines. In addition, strict provisions around building orientation and eave overhangs can deter passive solar design strategies. Updating codes to allow for greater flexibility during site planning to address solar orientation and instituting solar access regulations can result in measurable energy efficiency advancements for new developments.

Zoning codes have a direct relationship to a community’s transportation-related energy use. A recent study conducted by King County to map residential carbon pollution generated by neighborhood found that local urban form plays a significant role in the quantity of travel-related carbon emissions. The study found that mixed use neighborhoods had the most significant influence on carbon emissions, pointing towards the benefits of walkable, compact communities. Transportation energy savings can result from updating codes to promote infill and mixed-use development, reducing minimum lot sizes, and increasing densities or permitted Floor Area Ratios (FARs). These code changes support Smart Growth principles adopted by many communities, including greater connectivity and walkability.

Barriers can also exist in building codes and even in energy codes intended to promote energy efficiency! For example, structural and ventilation requirements may unintentionally conflict with advanced energy efficient measures such as superinsulation. Another problem is when energy efficient design strategies are not specifically prescribed. An example of the latter might be code "silence" regarding non-conventional construction such as strawbale. In these cases, building officials may require extensive (and expensive) testing to permit such strategies, require redundancies that make them economically infeasible, or prohibit them all together. Even less obvious are prohibitions by local health districts against water saving strategies such as composting toilets. Less water to treat means less pumping and process-related energy spent by the local wastewater treatment facility.

Report #1 cover Energy codes establish minimum energy performance and often fail to incentivize higher performance and more efficient buildings. Lack of energy code enforcement or performance testing requirements or assistance, has resulted in many buildings falling short of meeting even minimum energy code standards.

A comprehensive approach to removing regulatory barriers involves not only updating existing standards but also filling in missing gaps. A number of communities are developing new standards for renewable energy and water conservation, such as solar and wind ordinances, or even requiring new homes to be solar-ready or pre-plumbed for water reuse. Flexibility within the codes to allow for demonstration projects to test innovative strategies is essential to provide information to policy makers that can be incorporated in future code updates. Lastly, regulatory agency staff need ongoing education and credible sources of information on energy efficient design strategies in order to make reasonable interpretations when faced with new technologies and practices. Understandably their main concern is avoidance of health and safety risks. Better information can reduce the perception of risk and open the door to energy saving innovations.

Identify Additional Opportunities

In addition to removing regulatory barriers, it is important in developing an EEC Strategy or Energy Plan to think beyond the typical regulatory construct. A number of opportunities exist for communities seeking to implement energy efficiency and conservation measures at both the building-specific and the community-wide scales. Examples of local jurisdictions at the forefront of progressive policies and regulations exist from around the country, serving as models for those just getting started with EEC Strategy planning. Evaluating a community’s existing energy use, identifying the biggest energy users, and defining a benchmark for measuring efficiency and conservation actions serves as an important starting point for future policies and regulations.


US Dept. of Energy
Community Greening: How to Develop a Strategic Energy Plan

Sustainable Design and Green Building Toolkit for Local Governments

Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute
Sustainable Community Development Code and Reform Initiative:

Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Urban and Suburban Zoning Codes:

Cascadia Green Building Council
Codes and Regulatory Research Publications

Kathleen O'Brien is President of O'Brien & Company, a nationally respected green building consultancy founded in 1991. She is currently Principal-in-Charge for the firms planning, policy and programmatic work (including the Ellensburg project), and has been instrumental in the development of multiple sustainability strategies for government, non-profit, and private sector organizations. She served as an officer on the Cascadia Board of Directors in its early years and has been recognized by the organization as a Cascadia Fellow, a lifetime honorific. She is Editor of Building Capacity Blog.

Katie Spataro is Cascadia’s Research Director for Codes and Standards. Katie’s efforts to assist local governments with identifying obstacles and seeking pathways to support more sustainable development practices has assisted in the creation of policies, programs and code-related curriculum around the region. Katie heads up Cascadia’s Research Department which provides groundbreaking research and technical consulting services to help to further the adoption and understanding of the Living Building Challenge and other high performance policies, programs and standards.

Editors Note:O’Brien & Company and Cascadia Green Building Council are currently working together to develop a EEC Strategy for the City of Ellensburg, Washington, with the assistance of Makers Architecture & Urban Design, Transpo, and The Watershed Company. This work is in conjunction with an update of the Land Use Development Code, led by Makers. More in depth treatment of the topic is in the fall issue of Cascadia Green Building Councils publication, Trim Tab here:

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