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Montgomery County Council introduces plans to increase building energy standards

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich speaks at a news conference in Rockville in 2020. Elrich has introduced legislation to expand the number of buildings subject to the county's energy efficiency standards. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The Montgomery County Council is considering a measure that would require existing buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut their greenhouse gas emissions as part of its larger effort to tackle climate issues in the county.

The bill amends previous legislation that required owners of commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet to monitor and report their energy use to the county’s Department of Environmental Protection every year. The proposed measure would add another 1,000 buildings to that list, for a total of nearly 5,000.

The bill would also create a Building Performance Improvement Board, composed of officials and stakeholders.

Were the legislation to be passed, Montgomery would be the first county in the nation to implement Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) for existing buildings, meaning it would set a minimum energy performance threshold, according to the county. The target for how much emissions would need to be reduced have not yet been set.

“If we’re serious about tackling the County’s Climate Emergency, then BEPS is a necessary step to achieving our goals of zero [greenhouse gas] emissions by 2035,” County Executive Marc Elrich (D), who proposed the measure, said in a news release.

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The legislation is part of Elrich’s Climate Action plan, which he introduced last month. The plan aims to reduce the county’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent of its 2005 levels by 2027, and 100 percent of those levels by 2035. While it has one of the nation’s most ambitious local climate plans, activists have criticized the county for slow follow-through, although they welcomed the building measure as a step in the right direction.

Energy use in the building sector contributes most to the county’s greenhouse gas emissions, making up about half of the total, according to county Department of Environmental Protection Director Adam Ortiz. Commercial building energy use represents a fourth of the county’s total emissions.

“As this council has declared, we are in a climate emergency,” Ortiz said at a public hearing Tuesday before the county council. “While we have an ambitious pre-building code for new construction, we need similar requirements for existing buildings.”

Takoma Park Mobilization’s Environmental Committee submitted a written testimony in support of the bill, and recommended that the county provide incentives to owners for early adoption of the energy targets, such as credits toward the next performance cycle.

Diana Younts, who serves on the committee, said in an interview that the bill was crucial because it would help the county meet its climate goals, and recommended that the county include provisions to give low-income residents in these buildings representation in the implementation and decision-making process.

While no building owners testified against the bill, Todd Nedwick of the National Housing Trust, a nonprofit group geared toward creating and preserving affordable housing, recommended that the council include a funding mechanism in the legislation to help building owners comply with the law.

“Improving the energy efficiency of multifamily buildings can preserve affordable housing by lowering operating costs, reducing residents’ energy bills and creating healthier housing,” Nedwick said. “However, affordable housing owners face several obstacles to improving the efficiency of their properties including limited access to upfront capital and limited staff capacity.”

Department of Environmental Protection manager Lindsey Shaw said the community has a number of funding programs for building owners, such as the Montgomery County Green Bank, a publicly-chartered nonprofit group that invests in clean energy and affordable energy.

The county is working on establishing targets for building owners to meet, Shaw said. The legislation will set a long-range, flexible target for building owners to help them meet the standards in the bill, which will be set in the coming weeks.

Commercial building owners who do not meet the legal requirements can be subject to fines of $500 on first offense and up to $750 for repeated offenses, as allowed by state law. However, Shaw said that the county will be working with the state to see if they can increase the fees.

If the county council approves it, Shaw said, the legislation could be enacted by late fall.

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