Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Homes need to electrify. New building codes will make that harder

A nonprofit group that sets U.S. building codes has nixed rules to make new homes ready for EVs and heat pumps. Climate advocates blame fossil gas lobbyists.
By Jeff St. John

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A crane installs roof framing on a residential home under construction
(Robert Knopes/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Building codes are an often-overlooked tool in fighting climate change. But last week, a little-known nonprofit group that sets building codes used across most of the U.S. decided to make them a lot less helpful in that fight — largely to serve the interests of the fossil gas industry.

In a last-minute change, the International Code Council (ICC) board of directors stripped key home-electrification provisions from its 2024 International Energy Conservation Code. Those rules would have required new homes and multifamily buildings to include electrical wiring that can support EV chargers, heat pumps, induction stovetops and other all-electric replacements for fossil-fueled cars and fossil-gas-fueled heating and appliances.

These provisions were supported by 90 percent of the industry and government members of the ICC committees that have spent the past three years crafting the model codes. But they drew the ire of gas utilities and furnace manufacturers, which have consistently fought efforts to encourage electricity instead of gas use in buildings at the national, state and local levels.

These pro-gas groups filed last-minute appeals protesting the inclusion of pro-electrification rules in the new code. Those appeals were accepted for consideration in violation of ICC policy. Their complaints were ultimately rejected by the ICC’s appeals board — but the ICC board of directors ignored that ruling in its final decision.

Clean energy groups, consumer advocates, energy-efficiency experts, electrical equipment manufacturers — and even several Democratic lawmakers — reacted with outrage. These groups say the decision, which will affect a large portion of the roughly 1.5 million homes built in the U.S. each year, will create unnecessary hurdles to home electrification — something that needs to happen much faster for climate goals to be met.

It’s hard to precisely calculate the harms to come from the ICC’s decision in terms of carbon emissions, air pollution and additional energy and electrification conversion costs for property owners. But given the rising evidence of the climate and human-health harms caused by burning fossil gas inside buildings, and the energy- and emissions-saving benefits of switching to electric heating and appliances, they’re bound to be significant.

In particular, the decision will force owners of newly built homes to incur more retrofit costs to electrify. These costs are a well-known barrier to households and property owners seeking to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels in buildings, which account for roughly 12 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions.

Building in appropriately sized electrical panels and wiring to support electric heating, cooking and EV charging isn’t free, of course — it can slightly increase the cost of construction of new homes and buildings.

But those costs are a fraction of what it takes to retrofit homes and buildings that weren’t designed to support those new electrical appliances in the first place, said Patrick Hughes, senior vice president of strategy, technical, and industry affairs at the National Electrical Manufacturers Association trade group.

If you’re thinking about a new home, it’s a matter of a couple hundred dollars” to build in those features. But if you’re going to go in and retrofit, it’s anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000,” he said, citing data collected by federal energy researchers.

The bottom line, according to Mike Waite, director of codes at nonprofit group American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and a member of the consensus committee that developed this latest code cycle, is that this is going to increase retrofit and equipment and appliance installation costs for homes and businesses without them even knowing it, and increase their energy costs without them even knowing it.”

It’s a dereliction of duty,” he added.

Unpacking the ICC’s decision

The ICC has defended its decision on the grounds that it will focus building codes on efficiency rather than carbon emissions, but critics say there’s little logic to this argument.

In an emailed statement, ICC CEO Dominic Sims said that the board’s decision to strip home-electrification requirements from the mandatory portions of the new code was meant to allow states and jurisdictions to tailor their approach to sustainability.” He stated the updated 2024 code is expected to lead to an average 6.5 percent improvement in energy efficiency in residential buildings compared to the prior version of the code issued in 2021.

In an online statement, the ICC board of directors stated that the decision to strip the electrification-friendly requirements from the new code was based on a determination that its rules prohibited the inclusion of measures that did not directly affect building energy conservation,” but focus instead on greenhouse gas reduction.

But Waite pointed out that electrification saves energy as well as reduces carbon and air pollution emissions due to the greater efficiency of electric heat pumps and induction cooktops compared to gas furnaces, boilers and stoves.

He also noted that the two-year consensus-based process that yielded the codes under consideration already included concessions that reduced the scope of energy-efficiency measures they would require. Those concessions were made in exchange for adding the electrification provisions that the ICC board of directors stripped from the final code.

In other words, the ICC board of directors left in the compromises, but ripped out the benefits that were accrued from these compromises,” he said.

Waite highlighted another, less prominent change made by the ICC board of directors at the last minute — a decision to remove requirements for new commercial and institutional buildings to rework how they measure the efficiency of fossil-gas-heated buildings against the improved efficiency that can be delivered by heat pumps. Every office, every hospital, every school will have higher energy bills as a result,” he said.

The stripping of that provision and removing the electrification-readiness provisions from the residential construction code share a common characteristic, he noted: Both protect the status of fossil-gas-fueled heating in new construction.

The key differentiator is, if it threatened the gas industry, they removed it,” he said.

A demand for a new option — but what? 

This criticism was echoed in statements from a broad coalition comprising environmental groups including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council; EV and electrical equipment advocates including the Electric Vehicle Association and the EV Charging for All Coalition; building-efficiency advocacy groups including the New Buildings Institute and the Building Decarbonization Coalition; and climate-aligned government officials at the Elected Officials to Protect America.

Beyond protesting the content of the decision and how the ICC board of directors violated its established consensus-based rulemaking procedure, many groups questioned whether the ICC could be trusted to retain its role as the standards-setting body for building codes used across the country.

Alexander Kaufman, a HuffPost reporter who’s spent years detailing the ICC’s shift toward favoring narrow fossil-gas-related industry interests in its code-development processes, has noted that some experts involved in writing the latest codes say they may abandon the process altogether, in favor of forging a new national model that can more easily slash energy usage and cut back on planet-heating emissions.”

Waite cautioned that it’s too early to say how energy-efficiency and electrification backers like his organization might respond.

It’s a real challenge because the ICC is so established,” he said. But it’s very difficult to justify working on something for three years if a small group of unaccountable people can just take a red pen to what you did at the end.”

Hughes of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association noted that some groups are looking to codes set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, now primarily used in commercial building construction, as a potential alternative to the ICC rules.

The ICC board overturning the will of tens or hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer time from all the groups developing this, as well as the outcome of the appeals board, is ridiculous,” he said. It’s total disregard for the industry consensus standard development process.”

Looking to states and builders to go above and beyond

Backers of stronger efficiency and electrification standards in building codes are also looking to individual states to provide a corrective to the ICC’s decision. But state-level support for pro-electrification standards depends heavily on which political party holds the balance of power.

The ICC’s rules have long served as a baseline for the state, county or city-level building codes that exist in a confusing patchwork across the U.S. Many of these jurisdictions use the ICC rules as-is — but many others have gone beyond them.

In a number of states controlled by Democrats, including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York and Washington, lawmakers and officials have used building codes to mandate higher efficiency standards and restrict or ban gas-burning appliances in new buildings. Some have also instituted efficiency or air emissions standards that encourage properties to switch from fossil-fueled heating and cooking to electric heat pumps and induction stoves.

A very different situation prevails in many states controlled by Republicans. As this map from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association indicates, many of those states have failed to update their statewide codes to reflect the most recent versions of the ICC’s code — with some laggard states still using residential codes that are more than a decade out of date. 

Map of states that have adopted various vintages of the IECC model building code

Republican state leaders have taken overt action to block efforts to adopt more energy-efficient codes in some cases. Last year, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature overrode a veto from Democratic governor Roy Cooper to pass a law that will restrict the state from considering any revisions to its building codes until 2031 — a move that homebuilder groups promoted to avoid any additional costs they might have borne in complying with new efficiency requirements.

Complicating matters further is that building codes are not always set by statewide officials. In some states, county and city agencies play more central roles, making it harder to coordinate policy efforts.

Builders themselves are, of course, free to exceed the minimum standards, Hughes of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association noted — an important factor for some higher-end homebuilders eager to meet the demand of customers who want to buy homes ready to be upgraded with rooftop solar panels, EV chargers and other electric equipment.

But electrification isn’t a luxury product or something for high-end homebuyers only — it’s a necessity for the health of both the planet and people. The vast majority of people shopping for homes or commercial building space don’t have the power to demand electrification-ready construction, Hughes said.

The code is meant to [ensure] minimum safety, health [and] energy protections for everybody,” he said. There are untold numbers of reasons why someone might not know to ask, or might not have the financial means to ask, for these sorts of things — but they would still benefit and still deserve the same access to these things.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.