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Energy Standards for Public Buildings

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States, local governments and the federal government can lead by example by requiring that new public buildings meet strict energy standards, beyond statewide building energy codes that may already be in effect. By increasing efficiency and utilizing renewable energy in their own facilities, the government sector can reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, save money during tight budget conditions, promote local economic development, and demonstrate to other sectors how to become more sustainable.

Building energy codes cover areas of construction such as wall and ceiling insulation; window and door specifications; heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment efficiency; and lighting fixtures and controls. Energy codes set minimum standards and define the least-efficient buildings (public and private) that should be constructed. These codes vary greatly from state to state. Because buildings in the U.S. account for around one-third of the nation’s total energy use and two-thirds of total U.S. electricity use, the adoption and implementation of energy-efficient building codes is critical from both an economic and environmental perspective. The first step is to adopt a statewide building energy code based on the national model energy codes. National model energy codes are updated every few years, and the state codes should be updated to reflect the most current national model code. City and county jurisdictions can seek to increase code uniformity across the state.[1] After a state has adopted a statewide building energy code, state and local governments are poised to adopt standards for their own facilities that exceed national codes and to meet more aggressive energy efficiency and renewable energy goals.

Advanced policies for government facilities include attaining “green building” certification, achieving energy-reduction goals, exceeding building code requirements by a specified percentage, mandating the procurement of efficient equipment, and performing a life-cycle cost analysis. For example, all levels of government may require that new and renovated public buildings attain a certain level of "green building" certification, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system or the Green Globes rating system. Equipment procurement policies can mandate the use of the most efficient equipment, including that which bears the federal Energy Star label. Life-cycle cost analysis policies require government entities to consider energy costs (including equipment and construction) over the lifespan of a planned new building.

The government sector may choose to go one step further and adopt specific goals or mandates for renewable energy use in public buildings, or more specifically, for solar energy.

Status & Trends

Municipalities and state governments can play a critical role in supporting renewable energy by buying electricity generated by renewable resources, developing solar and green building design standards, or committing to installing a specific level of solar energy on public buildings. Several states and dozens of cities have established green power purchasing requirements; these goals or requirements state that a certain percentage of electricity purchased for government buildings must come from renewable resources. In these cases, solar is not typically a big part of the renewable electricity mix.

Gaining popularity at the state and local level are green building standards for new construction of and renovations to public buildings, which might involve achieving a certain level of "green" certification by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program, or through the Green Globes system. In some cases, the level of certification that must be attained depends on the project size, budget or economic feasibility. More than half of U.S. states have integrated one or more green building rating systems into state building policies, with the majority of such policies emerging in recent years. In addition, the U.S. Green Building Council lists several hundred local jurisdictions that have adopted a LEED initiative.[2] Solar energy is an element that can be used to help meet green building certification requirements.

A handful of states target solar installations and other renewables in state building policy. Older laws such as those in place in Arizona (1997), Florida (1974), Maryland (1992) and Texas (1995), require an evaluation of the life-cycle costs of solar or other forms alternative energy in new state projects. In these cases, “economically feasible” or “cost-effective” projects should be implemented, but these terms are not typically defined. Policies that require the evaluation of solar on public buildings without strong compliance mechanisms or action plans are not likely to be as effective as policies that embrace specific capacity or investment requirements. California has adopted a strong policy requiring solar installations on public buildings.

A growing number of local governments, including Boulder, Colorado, Marin County, California, Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California, have taken building codes a step further by requiring that certain commercial and/or residential construction meet sustainable building standards. California became the first state to establish a set of green building standards that apply to commercial and residential construction in addition to state-owned buildings. The standards took effect on a voluntary basis in 2009 and became mandatory in January 2011.

State-level standards targeting solar in the private sector have emerged in recent years. As part of its statewide solar initiative, California enacted a mandate, beginning in 2011, requiring homebuilders of housing developments with more than 50 units to offer solar energy as an option on new homes. In June 2008, Hawaii enacted legislation mandating that all new homes be outfitted with solar water-heating systems. The law prohibits the issuance of building permits for construction of new, single-family homes that do not have solar water heaters as of January 1, 2010. However, there are several escape hatches included in Hawaii's law. In 2009, Colorado enacted legislation requiring builders of single-family homes to offer solar energy as a standard feature to all prospective homebuyers. Some local governments have also enacted standards that affect the private sector. In June 2008, Tucson, Arizona, adopted an ordinance that requires all new homes either to have a photovoltaic (PV) system and a solar water-heating system installed, or to have all the necessary hardware installed so that a system can be installed easily in the future.


  • California enacted legislation in 2007 requiring that solar-energy systems be installed on all state buildings and state parking facilities by January 1, 2009, where feasible. The terms “feasible” and “cost-effective” are clearly defined, but enforcement provisions were vague. State law also requires the installation of solar-energy systems on all new state buildings constructed after January 1, 2008, if it is feasible and there are sufficient funds to do so. In addition, the state’s Green Building Action Plan aims to reduce grid-based energy use by 20% of 2003 levels by 2018 at major state-owned facilities.


Oregon Solar Installation Specialty Code. Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, Building Codes Division, October 2010.

[1]  Best Practices for State Building Energy Code Policy, Building Codes Assistance Project, accessed September 2012.
  LEED Initiatives in Government and Schools, U.S. Green Building Council, accessed March 2011.


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Disclaimer: The information presented on the DSIRE web site provides an unofficial overview of financial incentives and other policies. It does not constitute professional tax advice or other professional financial guidance, and it should not be used as the only source of information when making purchasing decisions, investment decisions or tax decisions, or when executing other binding agreements. Please refer to the individual contact provided below each summary to verify that a specific financial incentive or other policy applies to your project.

While the DSIRE staff strives to provide the best information possible, the DSIRE staff, the N.C. Solar Center, N.C. State University and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc. make no representations or warranties, either express or implied, concerning the accuracy, completeness, reliability or suitability of the information. The DSIRE staff, the N.C. Solar Center, N.C. State University and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc. disclaim all liability of any kind arising out of your use or misuse of the information contained or referenced on DSIRE Web pages.

Copyright 2014 - 2015 North Carolina State University, under NREL Subcontract No. XEU-0-99515-01. Permission granted only for personal or educational use, or for use by or on behalf of the U.S. government. North Carolina State University prohibits the unauthorized display, reproduction, sale, and/or distribution of all or portions of the content of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) without prior, written consent.