May 17, 2022

DC and Virginia Localities Expand Efforts to Promote Building Electrification

4 min

In 2019, New York City adopted the Climate Mobilization Act, which established carbon emissions caps for buildings larger than 25,000 square feet. More recently, New York became the largest U.S. city to enact a fossil fuel ban in new construction and substantial renovation projects beginning in 2024. While New York City is considered among the foremost leaders in the building electrification movement, more than 50 cities and towns across the country have enacted similar restrictions on fossil fuel use in new construction projects.

As localities have experimented with ways to combat climate change and promote more sustainable communities, they have increasingly focused attention on building carbon emissions. Many jurisdictions in the DMV have adopted, or are currently evaluating, new regulations designed to reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels in new and renovated buildings, preparing the way for what they envision as an all-electric future. These jurisdictions tout not only the environmental benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also the health benefits of reducing airborne pollutants associated with fossil fuel combustion.

Washington, DC is a member of the American Cities Climate Challenge, a coalition of localities that is working to achieve significant greenhouse gas reduction. The District's Clean Energy DC climate and energy plan calls for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2032 and achievement of carbon neutrality by 2050.

To get there, the District has established building energy performance standards that require energy efficiency improvements for certain existing buildings and is currently evaluating proposed regulations that would establish infractions for non-compliance. The District is also considering a series of construction code modifications that would mandate full electrification for new construction (and substantial renovations) of all residential properties that are no more than three stories tall, and would prohibit the use of any appliance that utilizes combustible fuels.

Arlington County's Community Energy Plan establishes a series of recommendations promoting energy efficiency and electrification, and recent development projects have been subjected to particular scrutiny with respect to energy efficiency during the zoning entitlement process. Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria, among others, have also adopted environmental policies that advocate for the electrification of the building stock.

Because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state (meaning localities can only exercise powers explicitly given them by the state), local governments within the Commonwealth are more limited in the scope of the regulations they can enact. No locality in Virginia has yet attempted to enact a ban on the use of fossil fuels in new construction, and it is not clear whether any such ban would withstand judicial scrutiny under existing state law.

On the state level, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates followed the lead of other red states that have adopted so-called preemption laws by passing a bill that would prohibit localities from enacting legislation that prevents customers from acquiring gas service in their buildings. However, this legislation was significantly pared down by the Democratic-controlled Senate. (Further action on the legislation is not expected until a future legislative session.)

Restrictions on the use of fossil fuels in buildings have created a natural tension with the development community, both locally and on a broader scale. The development community is grappling with such concerns as the availability of commercially scalable electrical building systems and appliances; the marketability of new residential units—and especially restaurants and commercial kitchens—that lack gas stoves and ovens; and the readiness of the electrical grid to absorb increased demand for electrical power.

Additionally, climate advocates and developers alike are engaged in significant deliberation about the intersection between building electrification and social equity concerns. Such concerns include potential impacts on construction costs, effects on the production of new affordable housing, and the ability of existing renters and homeowners to implement "green" building renovations and to comply with heightened energy efficiency standards—particularly in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Building electrification is a complex, multifaceted challenge. It offers a very real opportunity for an energy-efficient and sustainable built environment while also presenting logistical hurdles and equity considerations that are not easily overcome. It is imperative that property owners, developers, and design professionals continue to monitor ongoing policy debates over building electrification.

For more information about building electrification and other land use matters in Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland, please contact Matt Allman or another member of Venable's Land Use and Zoning Practice Group.

Check out "Will a New Mayoral Administration Impact Local Law 97?" by our colleagues in New York to see what other jurisdictions are considering.