Howard County Council passes legislation for all-electric construction in new buildings

Mar. 14—Howard County is moving ahead with its effort to end the use of fossil fuels in newly constructed buildings.

The Howard County Council voted 4-1 on March 6 to pass The Clean New Buildings Climate Act.

The legislation requires the county's Department of Inspections, Licenses & Permits to prepare a report with recommendations on changes needed to the building code to require all-electric buildings by the end of this year.

First introduced by District 3 Council member Christiana Rigby, the bill also directs County Executive Calvin Ball to present a report on changes to the county's building code by the end of the year.

"We've all heard testimony, and seen many reports and studies in the past few months, that makes the dangers of fossil fuels like methane gas to our environment and to our health, alarmingly (clear)," Rigby said at the council meeting.

Last year, the county developed a preliminary Climate Action and Resiliency Plan showing that buildings account for roughly 40% of Howard's local greenhouse gas emissions, 11% directly from onsite fuel combustion in buildings. The plan recommends that Howard move toward all-electric buildings by phasing out the use of fossil fuels in new construction.

The proposed legislation will not affect existing buildings in the county that rely on fossil fuels.

By beginning the process to electrify new buildings, the bill will help the county meet its goal to reduce emissions by 60% by 2030.

The bill also requires that the report develop net-zero energy standards for county government-owned buildings. It will also recommend how to minimize energy costs for affordable housing residents and how to maximize the use of federal, state and other climate action incentives.

"Building electrification and decarbonization is not a question of if. It is a question of when and how," Rigby said in a news release after the vote. "Next year, when the council considers legislation that will update the county's building code, the report resulting from the Clean New Buildings Climate Act will ensure that my colleagues and I are informed and prepared."

District 4 Council member Deb Jung said at the March 6 meeting that this is important legislation.

"I hope our Department of Licensing and Permits does the job that we are all now waiting to see them do, because that's really the important part of this bill," she said. "Actually reading that report and ensuring that we are making strides toward reducing carbon emissions in Howard County. If that doesn't happen as a result of the report, then we haven't done our jobs."

Council member Opel Jones, who represents District 2, said he's been educated by the numerous people and organizations that have spoken in favor of the bill over the last several months.

"I thought I knew enough, significantly enough about gas and electric. But I learned a lot from the youth, I learned a lot from everyone in green shirts, and the dozens and hundreds of emails we got," he said. "I appreciate all that. I look forward to this report, and I'm just anxious to see how this is going to turn out."

Councilmember David Yungmann, who represents District 5, was the sole vote against the legislation.

"I voted against CB-5 because I see it as a first step toward bad policy," Yungmann said in an email Monday. "We are best served by a diversity of energy types rather than dependency on one singular source, especially one that is more expensive, less efficient in heating large buildings and reliant on an aging unreliable distribution system."

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Meanwhile, the legislation is being praised by climate groups.

"By passing this legislation, the Howard County Council has taken the first step toward electrifying the vast majority of new buildings," Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network's Action Fund, said in a news release. "We must build on this momentum so that all Marylanders can experience the health, safety, and economic benefits of full electrification."

Ruth Alice White of Howard County Climate Action, praised the council.

"The only way Howard County and Maryland can meet its climate goals is by ending our reliance on fossil fuels in our homes," she said. "We're thankful to the Howard County Council for listening to residents over industry lobbyists and naysayers."

At a public hearing on the legislation in January, Issac Ambruso, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Maryland Building Industry Association, said the association recognizes the importance of addressing climate threats, but believes the bill would undermine any coordinated attempt to address this issue. He said it would have a detrimental impact on industry efforts to combat climate change.