- Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of the GHGs in the US, primarily natural gas these days but also heating oil burned to heat (and cool) the water and space inside buildings.
- CA: Last year, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order that targeted statewide net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. Buildings are about 25 percent of state emissions, so that necessarily means building decarbonization.
- The legislature subsequently passed a law (AB 3232) mandating that the state’s building sector reduce its emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and another (SB 1477) establishing a system to encourage the market for low-carbon building technologies.
- In December, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) approved $50 million in utility investment in clean, all-electric building for low-income residents in the San Joaquin Valley.
- NY: According to a report by New York Communities for Change, the People’s Climate Movement NY, and other local environmental advocacy organizations, 50 percent of the city’s climate-altering emissions are produced by just 2 percent of buildings.
- IECC: it would be much better if the 2021 IECC were to provide a boost of energy efficiency and lay the groundwork for a glide path to net-zero energy construction.
- That last point is the goal of the Energy-Efficient Codes Coalition (EECC). The Alliance established EECC in 2007 in response to two decades of meager energy efficiency progress in the IECC. EECC and its network of stakeholders and supporters worked hard to secure significant gains (nearly 40 percent cumulative improvement!) in the next two versions (2009 and 2012). Now, once again, after two building energy code cycles with minimal gains, EECC is back to work to change the course of the IECC. EECC recently launched an update of its website to help spread the good word of building energy codes and provide an online home for resources that code officials will need when they participate in hearings in Albuquerque (April) and Las Vegas (October). And on Monday, EECC submitted more than four dozen proposals to ICC that would boost the energy efficiency of residential and commercial buildings by 10 percent or more starting with the 2021 IECC. One proposal, the first of its kind for EECC, would even require added electrical panel capacity for future installations of electric vehicle (EV) chargers. Between now and 2025, EVs on U.S. roads could increase by 700 percent. The cost of adding chargers to new “EV-ready” homes will be much easier and many times less expensive than extensive retrofits of homes without that extra capacity “built in.”
One of the elements of the Green New Deal resolution that has caused the most consternation among critics on the right is its aspiration toward “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States,” along with building new buildings to the highest energy standards.
Conservatives have spun this up into a full invasion of federal bureaucrats. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell says they’ll be nosing around your home and business, “forcing you to pay for costly updates.” New York Times columnist David Brooks cites the section on buildings as one way the Green New Deal (a “fantasy,” he calls it) would centralize “power in the hands of the Washington elite.” Scary!
The irony is that among climate policy wonks, the call to reduce building emissions is one of the more banal elements of the resolution. Anyone who has studied the problem of reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to net zero — “deep decarbonization,” in the lingo — knows that buildings are a top agenda item.
The reason is simple: Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of the greenhouse gases in the US. Those emissions come, in part, from the fossil fuels (primarily natural gas these days but also heating oil) burned to heat (and cool) the water and space inside buildings.
That means the solution, alongside reducing and eliminating emissions from the electricity sector, is getting all those heating and cooling systems replaced by systems that are hooked up to the grid. In other words: electrification. (Electrify everything!) Happily for nervous conservatives, most of this work will be done by the private sector, guided by public regulation, so your home will not be invaded by jackbooted efficiency thugs.
I wrote about the need for building electrification last month, in the context of some news out of California (a new alliance formed to advance best practice in the space). California is, unsurprisingly, leading the pack on building electrification, but word is spreading and more and more jurisdictions are beginning to investigate or implement electrification programs.
The range and ambition of these programs puts the lie to conservative fears: It’s difficult, but tackling the building sector is possible. And it’s happening without federal bureaucrats.
Here are six jurisdictions taking the lead.
Last year, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order that targeted statewide net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. Buildings are about 25 percent of state emissions, so that necessarily means building decarbonization.
Accordingly, the legislature subsequently passed a law (AB 3232) mandating that the state’s building sector reduce its emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and another (SB 1477) establishing a system to encourage the market for low-carbon building technologies.
In December, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) approved $50 million in utility investment in clean, all-electric building for low-income residents in the San Joaquin Valley.
The city of San Jose has implemented building standards requiring all new residential buildings to be net-carbon-neutral by 2020, and all commercial buildings by 2030. (See also this great op-ed on electrification from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.) Marin County and Palo Alto have also tweaked their standards to encourage electrification.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is offering its 1.5 million customers rebates for heat pumps, induction cooktops, and other electrification investments, which, combined with other market trends, has made all-electric construction the default for new residential buildings in Sacramento.
And then there’s Berkeley, where this is brewing: View image on Twitter
One intriguing side tale here. The Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) has generally been a bad actor in the electrification push, for obvious reasons: Electrification would mean lots less natural gas.
But the threat of electrification has pushed it to accelerate its renewable natural gas (RNG) program. RNG is derived from various forms of organic or agricultural waste, from landfills, dairies, and the like. It is carbon-neutral or carbon-negative, since it recycles gases that would have been released to the atmosphere anyway.
SoCalGas has pledged to replace 20 percent of its gas with RNG by 2030. It cites a study showing that doing so would reduce more greenhouse gases than fully electrifying all of California’s buildings, two or three times more cost-effectively (though it acknowledges that much of the RNG would need to be imported from other states).
Energy wonks are divided on the promise of RNG. On one hand, it would be extremely helpful to have a drop-in substitute for natural gas — switching out fuels is a lot easier than switching out machines. On the other hand, the total potential for RNG is limited. It will never be enough to decarbonize the natural gas system. So why spend years building the infrastructure? One way or another, this is an interesting tug-of-war to watch.
2) New York City
Notice how many of the building initiatives being announced these days deal with new buildings, where net-zero construction is relatively cost-competitive. But the real problem in most places, especially older cities, is existing buildings and their already installed equipment. Replacing that stuff is more difficult and expensive.
New York City is about to become one of the first big cities in the world to grapple with this problem squarely.
Some 90 percent of the 2050 building stock in the city has already been built. And in the aggregate, buildings are responsible for 70 percent of the city’s emissions. There is no way for NYC to reach its long-term goal of 80 percent carbon reductions by 2050 without tackling existing buildings.
The city council is now considering a remarkable bill, championed by Queens Council member Costa Constantinides, that would mandate a 40 percent reduction in emissions from large buildings by 2030, rising to 80 percent by 2050.
In an excellent deep dive, the Nation’s Sophie Kasakove reports:
[The bill] would do this by mandating hefty fuel-efficiency upgrades for all buildings that are 25,000 square feet or larger — a category includes more than 50,000 buildings. That’s only a fraction of the city’s million-building inventory, but a little can go a long way when it comes to emissions: According to a report by New York Communities for Change, the People’s Climate Movement NY, and other local environmental advocacy organizations, 50 percent of the city’s climate-altering emissions are produced by just 2 percent of buildings.
The bill would also create an Office of Building Energy Performance to monitor compliance and levy penalties for failure to hit these (mandatory!) standards.
New York City’s powerful landlord associations have succeeded in bottling up this bill for years, but with the addition of supplementary legislation that would establish a loan program for landlords to make upgrades, it is widely expected to pass this time, as early as next month. And Mayor Bill De Blasio, who has been supportive of the bill, is expected to sign it. Among the buildings certain to be affected: several Trump properties. Expect officials from New York City — Resistance Central — to make much of that fact if the bill passes. Perhaps it will occasion a few presidential tweets.
3) Washington, DC
The nation’s capitol, which unjustly remains not a state, has taken some incredibly ambitious steps on climate change. Last December, it passed some of the strongest clean energy requirements in the country. Among other things, the omnibus bill requires a 100 percent renewable energy supply by 2032 (the fastest such goal in the US) and pledges the district to total carbon neutrality by 2050.
And it would tackle buildings, which represent 74 percent of the city’s emissions. The bill expands and strengthens a mandatory program of benchmarks and minimum standards for whole-building energy performance, which will apply to buildings all the way down to 10,000 square feet.
A special task force will spend the next two years establishing these Building Energy Performance Standard (BEPS) for each category of building.
As for financing, the city is kicking in $40 million more to its newly established Green Bank, which helps fund clean energy projects. These and other financing tools, like the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, will help DC’s building owners make the substantial investments needed to hit its targets.
4) Washington state
Democrats now have control of both houses of Washington’s legislature, and in December, governor (and presidential candidate) Jay Inslee introduced an aggressive suite of climate and clean energy bills, which would, among other things, commit the state to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045.
Another of the bills contains a clean-buildings policy that would:
- Establish building “stretch codes” that local municipalities could adopt if they’re feeling ambitious (and give municipalities the authority to adopt them)
- Invest around $78 million of public money in a range of net-zero buildings and programs, including leveraging state-owned building stock
- Implement an incentive program for early movers
- Establish new performance standards for commercial buildings, equipment, and natural gas use
Just 27 percent of the state’s emissions come from buildings (cars are the big problem in these parts), but deep decarbonization means getting started on it now.
The bills are working their way through the legislature. The 100 percent electricity bill recently passed the Senate and will now move to the House; the clean-buildings bill will get a vote in the House next week and then move to the Senate.
Massachusetts has always been a national leader in energy efficiency, but it upped its game again in January, passing a three-year energy efficiency plan that recognizes the benefits of electrification.
For the first time, the state’s utilities will offer financial incentives for “fuel switching” — leaving behind the oil and propane boilers common in the region in favor of air source heat pumps.
There are also several bills in the state legislature that would affect buildings. One, H 2836, would target economy-wide renewable energy by 2045. Another three would boost heat pump deployment, establish a program to publicize and train a workforce for electrification, and integrate incentives for electrification into zoning law.
Elsewhere in Massachusetts, the city of Boston is working on an update to its Climate Plan(due this summer). It is expected to draw on a report it commissioned in January, showing that two-thirds of the city’s emissions are produced by buildings.
Among the three strategies the report recommends (alongside energy efficiency and purchasing 100 percent clean energy) is electrifying the building stock as much as possible — which will be no small feat in a city rich with very old, very famous, and very leaky buildings.
6) Honorable mention
A list like this can’t hope to be comprehensive — there’s too much going on! — but here are a few runners-up to fill things out.
Buildings generate 65 percent of the emissions in Minneapolis, but the city has ambitious climate goals and a history as a leader in energy efficiency. It is focusing tightly on efficiency but has also formed an innovative Clean Energy Partnership with its electric and gas utilities, focused on offering customers alternatives to fossil fuel heat.
The city of Boulder, Colorado, though fairly small (around 100,000 people), is doing cutting edge work in this area. It has vowed an 80 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; in order to do that, it’s going to have to replace all the natural gas furnaces heating homes. To that end, it has developed a sophisticated tool for modeling the energy use of each detached home in the city, enabling it to create a “Roadmap to Renewable Living” for each participating homeowner. It’s part of a comprehensive program for building electrification that aims to reduce residential natural gas use by 85 percent by 2050.
The city of Boise, Idaho, has a massive geothermal system — the largest in the nation — that carries heated water from a batholith (a large mass of cooled magma) underneath the nearby mountains to buildings in the downtown core. About a third of downtown buildings heat their space and water this way. The city is now seeking to expand the system and get more buildings hooked up, part of a larger plan to power the city with renewables by 2040. (Where geothermal is available, it is quite cheap, especially when designed in concert with district heating systems and hooked up to new buildings. Don’t sleep on geothermal!)
Finally, and this is slightly cheating, but attention must be paid to Vancouver, British Columbia, just north of the US border. The city has an ambitious plan to completely decarbonize — electricity, transportation, and buildings — by 2050. (Read my interview with the city manager about the challenge.) The city has done extensive planning around the goal, involving some deep and fascinating research on buildings. The focus, other than old-fashioned energy efficiency, is to try to get as many buildings as possible hooked up to the city’s district heating system, which will be shifted to renewable biomass. Vancouver has been at this for several years now, so it is serving as a preview of the challenges facing all the cities above.
So there you have it! The long, difficult, and labor-intensive task of shifting the nation’s building stock to zero-carbon sources of heating and cooling has begun. For now, it’s only a few trailblazers really tackling the challenge head on, but as the leaders learn and develop best practices, expect the effort to spread.
Conservatives don’t believe the US can do something big like this. Across the country, state and city leaders are beginning to prove them wrong.
- This year, a new version of America’s model building energy code, which will eventually find its way into federal standards, will be developed in in Albuquerque and Las Vegas. You can read the whole story from the Alliance to Save Energy, but the long and short of it is that the once-every-three-years process will produce a new International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), and “thanks to a citation tucked away in federal statute (42 U.S.C. §6933), the latest version of the IECC becomes the basis for federal energy efficiency policy for buildings.” Worth following!
- The best work on “beneficial electrification” has come out of the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), which has a whole series of papers diving into electrification of various sectors.
- Here’s the NRDC on beneficial electrification.
- Here’s the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) on it.
- Turns out there’s a Beneficial Electrification League.
“I can tell you the consequences [of climate change] firsthand,” read the testimony of Rachel Rivera, a member of the grassroots community group New York Communities for Change (NYCC). Although Rivera was unable to attend herself, her words, delivered by a NYCC organizer, echoed through the chamber, replaying the horrors of two of the new breed of superstorms that have traumatized her family: Hurricane Sandy, which caused her ceiling to buckle under the weight of rain water and crash onto her daughter’s bed, nearly crushing her, and Hurricane Maria which flooded her family’s home in Puerto Rico, destroying all of their belongings.
“These climate disasters,” Rivera wrote, “are fueled by pollution that comes out of this city’s buildings every single day. It’s time [these buildings] clean up their act.”
This is where the bill, spearheaded by Queens Council Member Costa Constantinides, comes in. Sponsored by 31 council members, the bill would deliver the largest carbon reduction in any city in history: a 40 percent decrease in emissions from large buildings by 2030, increasing to an 80 percent decrease by 2050. It would do this by mandating hefty fuel-efficiency upgrades for all buildings that are 25,000 square feet or larger—a category includes more than 50,000 buildings. That’s only a fraction of the city’s million-building inventory, but a little can go a long way when it comes to emissions: According to a report by New York Communities for Change, the People’s Climate Movement NY, and other local environmental advocacy organizations, 50 percent of the city’s climate-altering emissions are produced by just 2 percent of buildings.
As suggested by the crowds that had gathered outside City Hall to cheer on the legislation, the effort has widespread support from the city’s environmental community—from its more centrist conservation flank to its more activist environmental-justice wing. The steps to City Hall were filled with people demanding “climate justice now!” and waving signs, including a #GreenNewDeal4NYC banner so long that it required nearly a dozen people to hold it up. “There is no city in the world that has anything remotely like this [legislation],” said Pete Sikora, director of Climate & Inequality Campaigns at NYCC, one of the organizations leading the push on the bill.
Part of the reason for the enthusiasm is that the bill has teeth: While past efforts, both in New York City and elsewhere, have merely recommended voluntary emissions reductions, this one would require changes. And it would enforce these requirements with the help of a new Office of Building Energy Performance which would have the authority to sanction buildings that don’t comply. Specifically, if owners of targeted buildings failed to do the necessary renovations to lower emissions—installing green building envelopes that more effectively retain heat and cooling, motion-sensor lighting that minimize electricity waste, and solar panels to cover the leftover energy need—then the office could slap them with a hefty fine.
Moreover, Constantinides has put forward additional legislation that would boost a sustainable-energy loan program to help landlords fund retrofits—thus helping clear at least some institutional opposition.
But perhaps what makes some activists most excited is the bill’s potential green-economy impact: the renovations would create an estimated 14,700 local unionized jobs, primarily for low-income people and people of color. “It’s a green New Deal for New York City,” said Sikora. “That’s really the scale of this program.”
The bill has been years in the making. Ever since 2007, when the city committed to its first-ever emissions-reduction goal of 30 percent by 2030, policy-makers have recognized the necessity of cracking down on the buildings sector. In New York City, as in other major hubs like London and Paris, buildings account for more than 70 percent of annual greenhouse-gas emissions, primarily because of these cities’ older buildings; built before the application of modern building codes, they rely on inefficient boiler systems, poor ventilation, and thin windows demanding excessive air conditioning and heating. These cities are the worst offenders, but the problem is universal: Nearly 40 percent of annual greenhouse-gas emissions emanate from buildings globally.
Despite the pressing need, however, efforts to crack down on the city’s carbon guzzlers have stalled time and again. A large source of the pushback, advocates say, has been the city’s powerful landlords, who have been determined to keep the regulatory space as narrow as possible—and to avoid having to make expensive upgrades. Indeed, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office first proposed an energy mandate as part of its Greater, Greener Buildings plan in 2009, Eddie Bautista, then the director of the Office of City Legislative Affairs, recalls that “REBNY went nuts over it” (REBNY is the acronym for the city’s powerful real-estate lobbying group, the Real Estate Board of New York). At the height of the recession, Bautista says, fearmongering about the bill’s potential harm to the real-estate market had significant sway over the council. REBNY declined to comment.
In the long run, landlords’ cost concerns have little merit, advocates say: Retrofitting can save building owners millions on energy savings per year. The Empire State Building, for example, will save an anticipated $4.4 million each year after retrofitting its way to a 40 percent reduction in energy use. Still, it’s undeniable that the path to those savings isn’t cheap: The Empire State Building’s upfront costs for the project totaled $20 million.
“This is a perfect case of a market failure,” said Sikora. “In theory, building owners know that they can recover the cost. But in reality, what happens is building owners just run the buildings the way they’ve always run them, and inertia wins out.” Moreover, developers who’ve bought into today’s commitment-averse model of property development—who purchase a building just to flip it in a couple years—aren’t likely to incur any of the savings of retrofitting, so why bother?
These tensions get to the heart of both why a mandate is necessary and why it’s been so difficult to push forward: Some of the worst carbon culprits belong to those with the most power to derail the bill. A case in point? According to a report released by ALIGN, an environmental-justice organization that has been instrumental in the bill’s development, some of the most egregious emitters in New York City belong to none other than the climate-change denier in chief. Trump Tower, for instance, with its heated pool, industrial-size laundry facilities, and event spaces—consumes more energy than 93 percent of New York’s largest residential buildings; the Mayfair, Trump’s tony hotel turned condo on Park Avenue, burns up more energy than 98 percent of large multifamily residences.
Landlord interests remain powerful, but after years of mounting pressure on city government, advocates for the bill are hopeful that the time is right. In the decade since the Bloomberg administration first floated the idea of an efficiency mandate, the need for radical climate action has become undeniably urgent: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s jarring October report, carbon emissions will need to fall by about half by 2030 to avoid full-on climate catastrophe. And, given that few of our national leaders seem up to the challenge, local ones are stepping in. Or as City Council member Constantinides told supporters on the steps of City Hall before the hearing: “With the federal government failing to take the lead and taking a huge step back, New York City has to step forward. We don’t have the time to waste.”
This sense of urgency has begun to ricochet around the world. In October, almost two dozen cities—from Sydney to Tokyo to New York City to Los Angeles—made a commitment to operate new buildings at net-zero carbon by 2030. All existing buildings will be held to the same standard by 2050. Taken together, all 19 signatories expect to eliminate 209 million tons of carbon from their buildings by 2050, the equivalent of taking 44.7 million cars off the road for one year.
But even among these cities, mandates are a radical step. Most of the cities are instead relying on incentives—offering tax breaks or low-interest financing to property owners who reduce their emissions—which has some activists worried. “What we’ve seen is that we’re not going to meet the goals we have without mandates,” says Stephen Edel, director of New York Working Families Project. “We’re not going to meet it without money on the table. Those current efforts are insufficient to the challenge of climate change.”
It’s taken years of pressure from environmental-justice organizations and community groups to arrive at the legislation that’s now up for debate. Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried on several occasions to put the mandate idea back on the table, but none of the efforts have gotten traction—in part because of real-estate industry pushback, but also because the groups most directly confronting the climate challenge felt they didn’t push for big enough emissions reductions. In a joint statement responding to de Blasio’s September 2017 mandate plan, 350.org NYC, New York Communities for Change, Tenants & Neighbors and others derided the mayor’s 7 percent emissions-reduction goal as far too cautious, writing that “half of large buildings, many energy hogs, already meet the standard that the city claims is a strong standard for 2030.”
The tenants’-rights issue “was completely overlooked in the  plan put forward by the Mayor,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN. “It was good on paper but could impact communities in the process—it was addressing one issue without thinking about the other.” These concerns were shared by a number of organizations. “What is an energy-efficient apartment worth if you can no longer afford it?” asked Annel Hernandez, associate director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.
After working up several drafts of the legislation, Councilmember Constantinides says that the council has finally found a way around tenants’ concerns: The proposed version of the legislation exempts landlords of buildings with rent-regulated units from the most expensive retrofit requirements, establishing more moderate demands over a longer timeframe. While advocates acknowledged at the hearing that these exceptions are not an ideal solution—after all, they slow the pace of the city’s emissions reductions—they argued that the exemptions are necessary, at least until Albany institutes badly needed tenant protections.
“That is the make or break piece of this bill,” said Hernandez. “We’re really happy with where it landed.”
As of now, the bill has the support of 31 council members—well over the majority it needs to pass; but, it’s not a done deal. The date for the vote has yet to be set. Advocates are hopeful that it has enough support in the council and the mayor’s office to pass but are wary that real-estate interests could emerge again to pressure the city into diluting the bill.
In a question to Mark Chambers, director of the mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Councilmember Brad Lander recalled the now decade-old first attempt to pass a mandate and reminded the room of the pushback from the real estate industry. “I’m thrilled they’re on board…but I don’t want that to slip. So, I think we need to be honest out loud that we’re going to face both technical challenges and political challenges in passing a strong bill. Are you committed to work through both the technical and the political challenges to get a strong bill?”
Chambers answered in the affirmative. “I don’t ask those questions out of doubt or skepticism,” Councilmember Lander said, amid hushed snickers from spectators. “I ask because we can’t wait any longer.”