The Carrot Or The Stick? Navigating The Balance In Strategies For Improving Energy Code Compliance

Written by Ryan Meres and Seul Rhee

Energy efficiency advocates, governments, utilities, and others that fund energy code compliance initiatives often question whether enforcement or training and outreach are more effective at driving higher compliance rates.

The answer isn’t obvious. Case in point: a recent energy code auditing initiative of New York City’s Department of Buildings is driving more stakeholders to meet the energy code, proving that more stringent enforcement increases compliance rates. But without the training and outreach efforts which help stakeholders understand the energy code and support the enforcement efforts, stringent enforcement alone can only go so far.

On the one hand, enforcement motivates people to get work done, especially when violations can carry serious risks. In New York City’s case, failure to pay attention to the energy code can hold up an entire project. An article in Crain’s on August 18, 2014 notes: “That scrutiny even extends to construction sites, with the [energy code audit] unit conducting more than 160 random visits this year—compared with zero under the pilot program—to make sure buildings were being constructed according to the approved plans. In one out of five cases, inspectors found problems.” The article also points out that the increased stringency is already showing positive changes, where “several engineering firms have already volunteered to go through the Department of Buildings’ gauntlet a second or third time to prevent their plans from being held up in the future.”

On the other hand, enforcement without any educational efforts is like a bucket with a hole in it. Enforcement combined with the right training and outreach efforts can ensure stakeholders design and build to the code, and arm them with the knowledge to choose the right compliance path for the right reasons—creating better results. New York City’s Department of Buildings understands that point, especially after their discovery during the audits that, “many firms were not consciously breaking the rules.”

There are dangers in relying solely on one solution no matter what the case may be. And often, one solution that works for one locality does not usually work for another. Perhaps the question lurking behind the dilemma of choosing a more effective way to improve energy code compliance is: How do you develop the most efficient and standardized process to determine a balanced approach that drives higher compliance rates?