University of Wisconsin–Madison

Building Energy Efficiency

The Problems & How are Progressives Addressing It

The impacts of climate change are being felt earlier and more intensely than predicted, making it imperative to transition to sustainable energy systems and a greener economy. Buildings account for 40 percent of energy use and more than 70 percent of electricity consumption in the US, making them a critical sight of intervention. Waste reduction and improved efficiency are the most readily-attainable and cost-effective improvements within reach of local governments: building codes can specify limits and parameters not only for the things like number of fire exits per floor, but also for energy efficiency features and green construction practices. By optimizing these codes for energy conservation, environmental impact, and sustainability over the entire building life cycle, local governments can save occupants money and reduce pollution. 

At the same time our current building energy systems are contributing to climate change and deepening inequality. Although they devote 45% more of their incomes to energy bills than non-Hispanic White Americans, Black Americans experience the brunt of energy inefficiency. Decades of residential segregation and housing discrimination have steered Black Americans to neighborhoods located near fossil fuel-fired power plants. Over one million Black Americans live in areas where toxic air pollution from natural gas facilities is so high that their risk of cancer exceeds EPA’s threshold level of concern. To make matters worse, low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live in less energy efficient housing that relies on fossil fuels rather than electricity for heating and cooking, and have less access to tools and resources necessary to improve efficiency and reduce utility bills.  Without government assistance, private sector interventions like residential solar panels and energy efficient appliances remain out of reach for many low-income households and fails to address preexisting disparities.

It is up to local governments to lead the nation’s transformation to greener and more equitable building energy systems. As communities update their infrastructure to mitigate the impact of climate change, they can also implement energy equity policies to democratize access to energy efficiency. This roadmap introduces energy efficiency and clean energy policies that local communities can implement to create a safer, more resilient, and more equitable future.

Available Local Levers & Current Reforms

Local governments can adopt the newest building energy codes maintained by the International Code Council (ICC), such as the International Energy Conservation Code,  the ANSI/ASHRAE/IES Standard, or the International Green Construction Code. These codes should be exceeded, if possible: Washington DC’s 2018 Building Efficiency Performance Standards will help the city reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption by 50% by 2032, while the City of Boston is working to implement plans to eliminate use of fossil fuels for new developments and major renovations. These proposals may be complicated by state law preemption (see the ProGov21 Home Rule policy roadmap for an introduction to these issues) but municipalities in states where these kinds of interventions are disallowed should introduce voluntary codes and encourage compliance through tax incentives, and assistance with data-driven Strategic Energy Management programs.

Although there are many myths about negative impacts of energy efficiency building codes, most of these have been debunked. While critics of updated building codes often argue that more efficient buildings are too expensive for the commercial and residential sector, updated codes are a potential source of long-term savings, and have not been found to reduce construction starts.

Whether the energy-efficient building codes are voluntary or mandatory, local governments can demonstrate their energy cost savings and environmental impact by retrofitting municipally-owned buildings to bring them up to meet new building energy code standards. While retrofitting is more expensive and less effective than building to code, it can be a cost-effective strategy for improving our carbon footprint:  experimental data shows that tenants in multi-family housing buildings can save as much as $500 per unit on annual utility bills through effective retrofitting projects.

By first retrofitting municipal buildings, local governments can provide a proof of concept and help develop private-market structures that provide services to other building owners. Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco have already enacted retrofitting programs that combine energy efficiency with job programs, and ProGov21 has resources for establishing city-wide retrofitting programs that includes policy and program structures, financing mechanisms, and labor standards and workforce development guidelines.

However, to be truly effective, retrofitting mandates and building code standards must be measured, incentivized, and enforced. Municipalities need to take building code enforcement and energy audits seriously—the average building stands for about 80 years, making it critical to get building energy right.

One of the best ways to incentivize landlords to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency is to mandate energy benchmarking and disclosure for residential and commercial buildings. Benchmarking measures building energy performance and efficiency, and can give an estimate of energy costs overtime. By mandating that landlords not only measure energy performance, but disclose past energy bills and future predicted costs to prospective tenants, local governments can create market rewards for improved building efficiency. Progov21 has benchmarking resources from cities including Chicago IL, Minneapolis MN, and San Francisco CA, with Chicago’s programming mandating benchmarking and disclosure for all commercial properties and residential rental units.

An equity lens must be applied to ensure that building energy programs do not deepen socioeconomic equality. Building energy efficiency programs must account for crucial starting-line disparities in poor communities and communities of color, where landlords have often neglected deferred maintenances. Programs must be developed with an equity lens: this report provides a guide to centering equity in energy efficiency programs.

 Taking it to the Next Level

By investing in building energy efficiency, local governments can simultaneously combat climate change, reduce residents’ utility bills, and facilitate the creation of good green jobs. Building to sustainable, energy-efficient standards creates more jobs than other types of construction, and both retrofitting and green construction need a high-quality workforce to not only work construction and home improvement, but to manufacture equipment, conduct efficiency audits, and more. Local governments can establish job quality standards and local-hire programs through mandates and incentives to ensure that the jobs produced are good jobs that benefit the local community and/or disadvantaged communities. In California, most renewable energy construction projects are governed by project labor agreements (PLAs). By combining green jobs with support for collective bargaining, local governments can create career ladders that lift people out of poverty. Thanks to collective bargaining, the majority of construction workers in the renewable energy industry receive middle-class wages and full health and retirement benefits. Not only does this benefit workers, but sufficient compensation can lead to a more sustainable future by keeping experienced workers in the field. High quality, skilled work prevents errors on the job, leading to the realization of maximum energy efficiency. See ProGov21’s Wages and Benefits Roadmap to discover more ways local governments can guarantee good jobs for the energy workforce.

Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations

  • Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships - Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) is a regional nonprofit that promotes the efficient use of energy in homes, buildings, and industry across the Northeast.
  • American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy - The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) is a non-profit research organization that develops transformative policies to reduce energy waste and combat climate change.
  • The Greenlining Institute - The Greenlining Institute is a non-profit organization that seeks to empower and advance economic opportunity for people of color through advocacy, community and coalition building, research, and leadership development.

Mayor's Innovation home page

Mayors Innovation Project, our sister organization, is a national learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government.


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