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Apartments under construction in the Twin Cities. Credit: Ken Paulman / Energy News Network

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Minnesota’s approach to updating state building energy codes is too slow given the urgency of the climate crisis, according to a coalition of cities and clean energy advocates that is pressing for swifter change.

Some of the state’s largest cities and suburbs are seeking permission from the Legislature to adopt model national energy codes for larger commercial buildings at a faster pace than the six-year cycle used by state officials.

A “stretch code” proposal by state Rep. Jamie Long would allow “cities to move a year or two quicker than the state and essentially pilot the new energy code once it’s adopted,” the Minneapolis Democrat said. 

The push at the Capitol comes as cities work toward climate goals that will be impossible to reach without changes to construction practices. Energy use for buildings accounts for up to two-thirds of emissions in some cities.

Fresh Energy, which publishes the Energy News Network, is among the organizations leading the lobbying effort to allow stretch codes. 

Minnesota cities, townships and counties enforce minimum new construction standards based on the state building code. Modifying the standards to be either more relaxed or strict is not allowed under state law.

Most states, including Minnesota, base energy building codes on a pair of national model codes, which are updated every three years. The International Energy Conservation Code covers smaller and residential construction, while the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers code covers larger and commercial buildings.

State law calls for Minnesota to adopt the latest version of the commercial energy code every six years to the edition that is three years old. The code review process involves months of stakeholder meetings with representatives from labor, construction, and efficiency advocates. 

Minnesota currently uses a version of the 2016 commercial code, with an update due later this year or early next year based on the 2019 edition. But the newest code will be released later this year, leaving Minnesota’s update three years behind the latest model code. 

Minnesota has been an energy code leader in the Midwest but it falls to the middle of the pack nationally when compared to the Northeast and West Coast. Long’s proposal would permit cities to pilot the newest version of the commercial energy code ahead of the state.

Long and the Legislature have seen other stretch code proposals in previous sessions. In 2019, one failed bill called for establishing an optional stretch code that cities could adopt based on Sustainable Building 2030 standards. Last session Long proposed an accelerated statewide adoption of the commercial code, moving Minnesota closer to the most current energy code standard. 

Long said the Senate was less interested in a statewide approach last year but appeared open to permitting local adoption of the newest commercial codes. If Long’s proposal passes, Minnesota would join New York, Massachusetts, and British Columbia in allowing local governments to adopt stretch codes. 

City sustainability leaders say they need to move more quickly on code updates to meet their climate goals. Minneapolis, which has a goal of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050, has spent a decade working to lower building emissions through benchmarking, solar, and energy efficiency programs. But retrofitting buildings is a slow and expensive process and the city isn’t moving fast enough to hit its goals.

“We have 71% of our carbon emissions come from our built environment, from buildings and the energy they use,” said Kim Havey, sustainability director for the city of Minneapolis. “It’s very important for the city of Minneapolis because we have a very significant amount of carbon coming from our buildings.”

Other cities supporting the stretch code proposal include St. Paul, Edina, Eden Prairie, St. Louis Park, Duluth and Rochester. The Minneapolis suburb St. Louis Park has a climate action plan that calls for carbon neutrality by 2040. Building and energy director Brian Hoffman thinks the energy code should push for the construction of high-performance buildings. 

“Why are we not building to the highest possible standard?” Hoffman asked. “If we’re going to build something to a low standard, we’ll have to go back and retrofit it, which is much more expensive [and] much more difficult.”

St. Louis Park likely would adopt a stretch code, Hoffman said, if the Legislature will allow it to. He said the city has encouraged builders to design better envelopes, increase insulation, and consider heating electrification and other energy measures.

“Once a building is built, it’s there for 100 years,” Hoffman said. “That’s why we support a code for building new buildings to the highest standard.”

Long’s proposal was discussed as a possible amendment to a building code bill held over from last session. State Sen. Dave Senjem, a Rochester Republican who has authored similar legislation in the past, told the Energy News Network he might again.

The local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 292 had opposed stretch codes in 2019 after members expressed concerns about dealing with different codes. Legislative and political director Andy Snope said that stretch codes could have created “a patchwork of different cities, following different building codes and energy codes.” 

But the union does not oppose allowing faster adoption by some cities of a code that will become the state standard a few years later. “This would make it much easier for our members to facilitate those changes one step ahead,” Snope said. “That would be a much easier transition, I think.”

Scott McLellan, director and state building official in the construction codes and licensing division of the Department of Labor and Industry, said cities adopting new codes earlier would still have to go through a public comment process and train staff. These cities would essentially pilot updated codes and could inform future energy codes with on-the-ground data and observations. The department does not oppose allowing cities to adopt the newest code as a stretch code.

Having a strong building code helps with climate change but it may be of limited value in Greater Minnesota. McLellan said that only 21 of Minnesota’s 87 counties enforce the state energy code. However, most major cities located in counties that do not enforce it use the code, and architects and engineers working on new buildings must abide by it, he said.

Long said the stretch code would be wrapped into an omnibus energy bill which “is in the assembly stage. Be assured that it will be there.”

Questions or comments about this article? Contact us at editor@energynews.us.

Frank Jossi

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.