Experts say updating Michigan’s building code may be key for meeting climate goals. Here’s why.

New energy codes could make a big difference, but developers are wary.

A new report asserts that Michigan could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower energy bills by updating its building energy standards. New standards could help the state meet emissions reduction targets set out in the MI Healthy Climate Plan and come at a critical time as lawmakers look to use federal and state money to build affordable housing and retrofit homes.

The study by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that Michigan could save 10.7% on residential energy costs by updating its standards to align with the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). States like North Dakota and Wyoming, which lack statewide codes and have more construction activity, would benefit even more.

A previous U.S. Department of Energy analysis showed these changes would save the average Michigan household $327 a year and cut statewide CO2 emissions by 11.5 million tons over the next thirty years, the equivalent of taking three coal-fired power plants offline for one year.  

Experts say Michigan officials are poised to make such changes, but home builders have pushed back, arguing updated codes would drive up the cost of housing. 

Charlotte Jameson, chief policy officer at the Michigan Environmental Council, said that in decarbonizing residential and commercial structures, “the building code is probably the most effective tool that we have right now.” Changes to the standards would require tighter seals around windows and ceilings, LEDs for all light sources, and rigid foam insulation for exterior walls. Jameson called this last provision the most important, saying it “would make a really big dent in energy efficiency.”

Making these changes would also help Michigan take a bite out of its total greenhouse gas emissions, which the state wants cut by 52% below 2005 levels by 2030. The ACEEE report shows that the state still needs to reduce emissions by 42.8% to meet this target.

Emissions associated with buildings substantially contribute to the state’s total, although exactly how much is a little fuzzy. The Michigan climate plan shows that buildings account for 18% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. But this number doesn’t include electricity, which contributes 30% to total emissions. A 2015 report from the Department of Energy found that nationally, 76% of all electricity was used by commercial and residential buildings.

Jameson said that updating the code would have a significant impact on climate action, but that it’s hard to estimate how much because most of the benefit comes from new construction.

“It’s all a projection of how much building Michigan will be doing and then you sort of back out from there,” she said. This may be one reason ACEEE ranked Michigan below other states for the savings it’s likely to see from a revised code. The group currently places Michigan at 45th for construction activity, perhaps a reflection of the state’s recent population loss. But this could change as some predict that cooler temperatures will make the state an attractive destination for those fleeing climate related disasters like heatwaves, drought, and wildfires.

Improved codes could also make the most of efforts like the $1.65 billion Michigan Affordable Healthy Homes proposal, which looks to invest in new housing, fund home retrofits to remove hazards and increase energy efficiency, and train workers to help implement such programs. 

These investments in housing could be especially important for climate action in Michigan, with the ACEEE report showing energy savings for residential buildings would be 7% higher than commercial ones.

Energy efficiency funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the $5.1 billion available in Michigan’s own general fund likely also make it a good time to invest in housing. And the BIL and Inflation Reduction Act both include money to help states adopt and implement stronger energy codes.

Douglas Jester, managing partner at the consulting firm 5 Lakes Energy, said these changes would benefit even those who aren’t building new homes because construction materials will have to conform to new rules and workers doing renovations and repairs will be trained to follow the updated code.

He added that the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) seems poised to implement an updated code that follows the IECC rules, delivering substantial energy savings in the decades to come. Although first, LARA will need to take the updated standards to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), a body composed of Michigan House and Senate members who have several weeks to recommend possible changes. However, the agency isn’t required to accept these recommendations.

“The proposed rules largely adopt the 2021 [IECC] code with essentially no watering down or very little watering down,” Jester said. “It would put us in pretty good shape as far as how good our code would be.”


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