The Ed Roberts Campus is a high efficiency building already, thus likely to be exempt from the new laws, said city staff. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The Ed Roberts Campus is a high efficiency building already, thus likely to be exempt from the new laws, said city staff. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The Ed Roberts Campus is a high efficiency building already, thus likely to be exempt from the new laws, said city staff. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Later this month, the Berkeley City Council is slated to approve a new law — designed to increase building sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions — that will mandate new fees and recurring energy assessments for local property owners.

The law would require payment of a $79-$240 filing fee, depending on building size, by property owners every 5-10 years. On top of that, property owners will be required to undergo building energy assessments on the same cycle, conducted by registered contractors, to the tune of an estimated $200 for a single-family home and up to $10,000 for large commercial buildings.

See the January 2015 update on Berkeleyside.

The goal of the new law, according to the city, is to make “building energy use information more transparent to owners and prospective renters or buyers,” and ultimately inspire more investment in energy upgrades. The law would replace existing minimum energy and water efficiency measures in Berkeley. The proposed ordinance would not require that upgrades are actually done, but will compile energy scores and summaries for city properties, and make them readily available online.

Explained city sustainability coordinator Billi Romain, “Rather than require a list of specific measures, it requires an evaluation of a building’s efficiency opportunities and identifies all available incentives and financing programs.”

Romain said the hope is that, by giving people a “road map” for potential improvements, they will be more likely to schedule them to fit in with other home projects, such as seismic work. In addition to cutting down on local greenhouse gas emissions, the new ordinance has several other goals, from reducing utility costs that cause local dollars to “leak out” of Berkeley, to creating a more comfortable, durable building stock, as well as fortifying the local “green” workforce.

“We wanted to make it bigger than just saving energy,” said Romain. “It’s about making homes more resilient, too.”

The Building Energy Saving Ordinance has been in the works since September 2013 when council asked staff to look into ways to update the city’s building sustainability requirements. Since then, the Berkeley Energy Commission has held three public workshops to collect input, and groups like the city’s Housing Advisory Commission and Rent Board have weighed in. Still, many local residents have said recently on various email lists and neighborhood social networks that they are just learning about the plans now, and that the city has not done enough to inform local property owners or get their feedback.

According to a city Energy Commission report on the ordinance, the assessments would take place on a five-year cycle for large buildings and every 8-10 years, or upon sale, for medium-sized and small buildings. Some of the costs may be offset by rebates and other incentives, and the program is set to include temporary “hardship deferrals” for those with financial constraints, and exemptions for high-efficiency buildings (see page 14).

Read more about BESO. Image: City of Berkeley
Read more about BESO. Image: City of Berkeley

According to the city, “The assessment will provide building owners with… recommendations packaged with rebates and incentives, with consideration given to existing and planned capital improvements. The assessment will include a cost/benefit analysis of measures and will identify health, comfort, and safety benefits of recommended upgrades.”

As one incentive, for example, council says one-third of the property transfer tax, up to $3,000, could be used for home improvements. Romain said, as it stands now, there are so many options available for different types of incentives and financing programs that property owners get confused and opt not to take action.

The city hopes the assessment will help people identify sustainability-related solutions more easily, and Romain said that will likely prompt at least some people to make changes. Several years ago, the city offered rebates to local property owners who wanted energy assessments; 79% of them went on to do the recommended upgrades. She acknowledged that the rebate program participants were a self-selected bunch, and were perhaps more prepared to invest. But she said, even if a relatively low percentage jumps in, the city could see major reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, particularly if those who own the lowest-performing structures can be persuaded to engage.

“If we could do 35% of all the buildings in Berkeley, and get 20-30% reductions, we would meet our climate action goals,” said Romain. “This isn’t going to be a hammer kind of approach. We really want to direct people to the resources available to them, and use more education and encouragement to help people get connected.”

The proposed law is a critical component of Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan. The plan was created by the city in 2006 and sets a target of a 33% reduction in emissions by 2020, followed by an 80% reduction by 2050.

From the staff report: “This target is ambitious and achieving it depends on accelerating energy and water efficiency in Berkeley’s existing residential, commercial, and municipal building stock. Importantly, increased energy efficiency has non-energy benefits, including improved durability, occupant comfort and indoor air quality, lower utility bills and the creation of green jobs. While GHG emissions associated with residential and commercial building energy use have decreased since 2000, significant additional reductions are needed.”

According to the city, 45% of Berkeley’s overall greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings.

Read more about BESO. Image: City of Berkeley
Proposed filing fees for properties in Berkeley. Read more about BESO. Image: City of Berkeley

Previously, the city used RECO and CECO to create a mandatory list of minimum energy and water saving measures. These had to be installed in all buildings at the point of sale, or during significant remodels. The city said these laws worked well and helped achieve emissions reductions, but that more stringent steps, on a more aggressive and frequent schedule, must be taken if Berkeley hopes to achieve its ambitious climate action goals.

Part of the idea is to come up with a baseline and a database to identify the least and most efficient properties in Berkeley. Romain said there ultimately may be something like a 10-point rating scale; properties that fall on the higher end would be exempt from future assessments.

Officials say the new law also will allow for more flexibility as building technologies and ways to achieve sustainability change, and that it will make it easier for property owners to take advantage of rebate and incentive programs to recover the costs for improvements.

“The current ordinances’ prescriptive measures are out of date with building science, lag behind the current Title 24 California Energy Code and do not align with rate-payer funded incentive programs,” according to the Berkeley Energy Commission. “Furthermore, prescriptive measures are limited to existing technologies, when efficiency gains over the next 10 years are projected to come from emerging technologies.”

Estimated energy audit costs under BESO. Image: City of Berkeley
Estimated energy audit costs and financial incentives under BESO. (Read more about PACE Financing.) Image: City of Berkeley

Council members approved the first reading of the ordinance unanimously in November, but asked staff to make sure information about rebates, incentives and approved contractors is readily available online for local property owners. And Councilwoman Susan Wengraf asked staff to look closely at how to subsidize the program, particularly for local homeowners.

“There are many people in this city who are ‘house rich’ but cash poor,” she said. “They may have the best of intentions, but they won’t be able to do the work.”

One Berkeley resident wrote a letter to council about BESO in November. She urged support for the new law. Erica Etelson said she recently signed up for a home audit to make sure she was maximizing her efficiency.

“As a result of that audit, I learned that my furnace is far less efficient than current models, and that my house’s ‘envelope’ is leaking substantial amounts of heat,” she wrote. “The auditor provided me with a roadmap of what to do to conserve heat and has connected me with $1800 worth of rebates to get the job done.”

She said she also learned that her gas oven is releasing 30 times the safe upper limit of carbon monoxide, and credits the audit with alerting her to the problem. She said she thought all property owners in the city would benefit from the audit, and believes the new law will help the city meet its emissions reduction goals.

The League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville also submitted a letter, written by its president, Nancy Bickel, in which the organization said it could not support the new law because it is concerned that costs will be “unreasonably high” for many homeowners.

The League wrote that low-income exceptions may be difficult to apply for, and too narrowly applied: “The cost of the audit may be onerous for many homeowners of modest means.”

The League acknowledged that the city’s adoption of a more regular assessment schedule than under the current point-of-sale system could speed up improvements and is a laudable goal. But the organization said it is concerned that the audit will pose a hardship for many families, and that “those families are not likely to be able to pay for the suggested improvements themselves, so it could be self-defeating.”

The second reading, when the ordinance becomes final, is scheduled to come before the Berkeley City Council on Dec. 16.

The city plans to phase in the requirement for all buildings, from largest to smallest, beginning in 2016 for buildings over 50,000 square feet. Single-family homes and multi-family structures with up to four units are not slated to face the requirements until 2020, and even then there will be a gradual phase-in process that has not been determined but is expected to be established in 2017-18.

Read the Energy Commission report on BESO, and watch a video of a recent presentation to council about the new law; related workshop materials are online. Read more about BESO on the city website. For more information, email Billi Romain, Berkeley sustainability coordinator, at Email the entire council at

Berkeley council adopts new building sustainability law; small properties exempt for now (01.29.15)
Berkeley appoints first ‘chief resilience officer’ (08.07.14)
Op-ed: Berkeley should allow curbside electric vehicle charging (02.20.14)
City lauds 29 ‘energy smart’ businesses in Berkeley (01.31.14)
Berkeley greenhouse gas emissions down 8% since 2000 (09.06.13)
Streamlined permitting aims to cut solar costs (08.07.13)
Big changes needed to meet 2020 emissions goals (11.13.12)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...