Fact check: net-zero stretch code is the right move for Massachusetts
Yesterday, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker vetoed S. 2995, “An act creating a next-generation roadmap for Massachusetts climate policy.” As the Boston Globe reported earlier this week, and as the Governor’s letter to the legislature confirms, opposition from the real estate industry played a significant role in the decision.
The section of the bill that has drawn the ire of real estate groups has to do with the energy efficiency parts of the building code. Currently, Massachusetts has both a standard (or “base”) building energy code and a “stretch” code. The stretch code allows cities and towns to opt in to requirements for higher levels of energy efficiency in new buildings.
The bill would require the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) to strengthen the stretch code and to include a definition of “net-zero building.” Net-zero buildings either emit no greenhouse gases or generate enough renewable energy to offset the emissions they do cause. Although they sound like the far-off future, developers are building zero-energy buildings in Massachusetts right now at no extra cost.
Even so, real estate developers reportedly complained to the Governor that this part of the bill would be a burden. Their complaint is hard to understand. The bill’s approach is about as cautious and reasonable as one could expect, and here’s why:
The stretch code is optional. Cities and towns must opt-in to the current stretch code. To date, more than 80% of the Commonwealth’s municipalities have done so, ranging from urban Springfield to rural Colrain and suburban Rockland. An updated version of the code would be no different. Far from a hardship, the stretch code is a valuable tool which cities and towns use to reduce energy bills for their residents and businesses.
Flexibility is built into the stretch code. Today, Massachusetts’ stretch code is performance-based. This means that rather than dictating that different building components be built in a specific way, the stretch code requires a certain level of whole-building efficiency, which builders may achieve in whatever way they wish. Updating to a net-zero stretch code would entail higher levels of energy efficiency, but it would not alter this flexibility.
The Governor’s agencies would be in charge of developing the code. Notably, the bill does not define “net-zero building.” It assigns that task to the Governor’s own administration. Fortunately, the administration had already begun this work long before the final bill emerged: a recently-released draft of the state’s Clean Energy and Climate Plan (page 30) specifically proposes that the stretch code be updated in just the way that the bill proposes.
The bill provides for a gradual implementation timeline. The bill urges DOER to develop “a tiered implementation plan,” under which the revised code could be phased in over time and modulated to reflect different energy use characteristics between building types. The Governor’s administration would be empowered to make these decisions. And even under an aggressive timeline, years are likely to pass before a significant number of construction projects in the Commonwealth are built under the new code. The real estate industry’s depiction of the updated stretch code as sudden and onerous does not square with the facts.
Responsibility for the code would remain with the state. Campaigns to ban new gas hookups have gathered steam recently in several Massachusetts cities and towns. Real estate interests have opposed these common-sense climate measures as well, on the grounds that, since these ordinances would vary by town, they would add a layer of complexity to developers’ work. While Acadia Center agrees that the Commonwealth must rapidly wind down its use of gas if it expects to reach its climate targets, adopting a statewide net-zero stretch code would not create the labyrinthine landscape of different building codes that developers fear. It would simply update a building code pathway that has already existed in Massachusetts for years to include requirements that many builders in the state are already sticking to on their own.
In conclusion, the updated stretch energy code that S.2995 proposes is optional, flexible, efficient, and ultimately defined by the Governor’s own agencies. To find a more accommodating approach would be difficult indeed. Acadia Center thanks Speaker Mariano and Senate President Spilka for their intention to quickly pass the bill again and urges Governor Baker to sign it this time.