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North Carolina legislature moves to block new rules for building efficiency

The North Carolina legislature advanced legislation Wednesday to block new rules for energy-efficient building construction, brushing aside critics who say the bill would penalize homeowners and hurt communities trying to prepare for extreme weather. 

Passed by the House last month and backed by the state’s powerful developer lobby, House Bill 488 would undo two years of effort by the state’s Building Code Council, which had sought to overhaul the state’s 2009-era standards for insulation thickness, window quality, and other energy-saving features in new homes. 

Instead, the measure scheduled today for a vote in the state Senate would create a new, developer-friendly panel to oversee residential codes, stripping that authority from the existing council. The new body wouldn’t be allowed to revamp the entire residential energy code until 2031 but could offer discrete amendments beginning in 2026.

Critics say the bill would deprive new homeowners of the chance to save on utility bills, which will sting even more if hefty Duke Energy rate increases are approved. The Building Code Council’s proposed changes had been predicted to increase construction costs by about $5,000 but pay for itself in the form of lower energy bills, producing a positive cash flow from the get-go.

For months, the North Carolina Home Builders Association claimed the study’s own authors had said their analysis was flawed. But the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has repeatedly refuted that notion, most recently in a memo dated last week.

“PNNL stands by the technical analysis and impact estimates previously provided to the Council,” the memo states, “which indicate that the proposed code will result in significant savings for homeowners and renters in North Carolina.”

The state’s Department of Public Safety also says the state’s outdated building code hurts local governments seeking help from FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure Communities (BRIC) Program, which funds projects to reduce risks from disasters and natural hazards.

“One of [FEMA]’s priorities is to incentivize adoption and enforcement of modern building codes,” said public information officer Brian Haines via email. “In each funding year since 2020, FEMA has increased the weight of the scoring for codes adoption-related criteria.” 

Pending applications for that federal program from the state total $141 million this year, when 40 out of 115 total scoring points will relate to building codes. The state forfeited 10 of these points this year, officials say, and could lose 20 more in the future.

“Losing points that we cannot overcome in other scored areas would mean a reduction in projects awarded to the state,” Haines said over email, “impacting residents and businesses alike.” 

Still, Rep. Mark Brody, a builder and Union County Republican, insists his bill wouldn’t hurt North Carolina’s grant competitiveness. FEMA only cares if the state adopts most of the up-to-date model code, he asserts, and skipping the energy chapter is okay. “We will get 100% of the grant points” if the overall model code is adopted, he told senators this week.

The Energy News Network asked Brody if he had evidence for his view. He pointed to the same BRIC guidelines highlighted by bill critics, which don’t specify whether all chapters contained in the model code are required.

Raleigh mechanical engineer Natalie MacDonald, a member of the Building Code Council and supporter of the updated energy conservation code, urged senators this week to consider the budgetary impacts of creating a second code council. 

“This is going to have an additional burden on the Department of Insurance,” she said, pointing out that three new staff to assist the new panel would cost the state another half a million dollars each year, according to a fiscal note from nonpartisan legislative staff. 

Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Jim Perry, a Wayne County Republican, dismissed those concerns, too.

“The chair will point out that [the bill] will only cost money if it’s appropriated,” he said, “and I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”

If the GOP-led Senate approves House Bill 488, it would face at least one more vote in the House, also controlled by Republicans, before reaching the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper, a Democrat in his second term, has publicly criticized the measure.

“It’s so important that we don’t just stop this and say we’re going to freeze everything as it is,” he told the Energy News Network earlier this spring. “That’s a bad idea because we know that technology is moving so fast, and we can save money in the long run by being more energy efficient.”

But it’s not clear a veto, if it came, would stick. The bill passed the House easily with bipartisan support, and Republicans retain super majorities in both chambers.

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