How Our Buildings Can Help Us Reach Carbon Net-Zero

Global temperature is on track to rise 6°C. Climate scientists warn of fast-approaching tipping points setting off a cascade of devastating effects. If we’re going to mitigate the impact, we need immediate and aggressive action. In the U.S., cities and states are responding. Twenty-five states have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, and 350 municipalities are part of Climate Mayors, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. mayors committed to accelerating climate progress. Municipalities throughout the U.S. have set aggressive goals to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, which means they will not produce more climate-changing emissions than they can offset. So how do we get there? One inevitable way will be increasing efficiency in commercial and residential buildings. 

Commercial and residential buildings accounted for roughly 40% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2018. From lighting to heating and cooling systems, buildings produce an enormous amount of emissions that negatively affect our environment. Governments that are serious about net-zero goals need to take action with their buildings.

Two leaders in the U.S. that have successfully passed laws and regulations to reduce building emissions are New York City and the state of California. While each is taking a different approach, their early initiatives are a good start in reaching the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality and provide prime examples for others to adopt. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Birmingham, AL will likely enact different regulations than New York City due to the difference in each city’s building stock, but that doesn’t mean the southern city can’t learn from the Big Apple’s initiatives — and vice versa!

New York City’s Pivotal Step Toward Climate Change

In 2009, New York passed a series of local laws as part of their Greener Greater Buildings Plan which focuses on reducing buildings’ energy consumption. Paired with expansions and additions passed in 2016 and 2018, this laid the groundwork to measure, assess, and make straightforward changes to the buildings.

In April 2019, New York City took another significant step by passing the Climate Mobilization Act, which is the largest climate solution by any city in the world. This Act includes eleven pieces of legislation, including the centerpiece, Local Law 97, which limits carbon emissions in buildings.

To reduce the risk of accumulating fines, it’s crucial for building owners to be aware of specific regulations and understand the importance of compliance, but moreover, the value of energy improvements.

Buildings must meet the first carbon emissions limit deadline in 2024 or face hefty fines. Building owners can estimate a building’s future emissions fines by multiplying the building’s emissions overages by $268. If buildings fail to provide accurate reports, it could result in an even more cumbersome fine. To reduce the risk of accumulating fines, it’s crucial for building owners to be aware of specific regulations and understand the importance of compliance, but moreover, the value of energy improvements.

Local Laws 84 and 87, passed over 10 years ago, are well-established and can help buildings meet the new Local Law 97 requirements. How? Benchmarking (LL84) helps owners assess if there are areas of energy waste, while energy auditing (LL87) helps pinpoint exactly where the waste is coming from and how to fix them. The audit report should be a guide to reducing a building’s carbon emissions. There are even third-party service providers that will identify which upgrades will help building owners achieve their emissions reduction targets in their audit reports.

By forcing some of the largest building emitters to reduce their carbon footprint, New York City is boldly forging a path to net-zero, and other metropolises can learn from its tested initiatives. 

California’s Ambitious Goal of Carbon Neutrality

California became one of the earliest adopters of aggressive carbon emission goals when they passed the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32). In 2018, California legislature and former Governor Gary Brown passed a package of enactments, most critically SB 100, committing California to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, and executive order B-55-18, calling for carbon neutrality by 2045. To achieve these goals, California must green the electric grid and decommission the use of natural gas.

In 2017, roughly 41% of California’s electricity came from natural gas, 47% came from renewable energy, and 12% from other sources such as nuclear and biomass. Since natural gas power plants produce carbon dioxide while generating electricity, California must turn to another power source in order to decarbonize the electric grid. With the help of renewable energy to generate electricity, California can generate clean fuel to power buildings. 

Like New York City, California has an energy benchmarking requirement, AB 802. Beyond investing in traditional energy efficiency improvements, building owners are faced with the critical task of electrifying their buildings, which means they will need to decommission fossil fuels and switch to cleaner fuel sources. One example of fuel switching technology is heat pump water heaters (HPWH), which use electricity to move heat from the surrounding air into the water for domestic hot water.

Traditional domestic hot water boilers historically act as the primary source for heating water by burning natural gas, which emits greenhouse gasses. HPWHs are not only reliant on electricity instead of fossil fuel, they can be 3 to 5 times more efficient than standard natural gas boilers. Buildings can take a hybrid approach, allowing HPWHs to serve as the primary source for heating hot water while the existing natural gas boilers can be used as a secondary source. In terms of cost, HPWH retrofits could be pricey, but California offers incentive programs that make these retrofits more cost-effective. Other states are following California’s lead, like Maryland and Connecticut, which are incentivizing unitized HPWHs. This is a proven approach, as these systems are prevalent in Japan and across Asia, but they’re only starting to make their way to the United States.

Across the U.S., these climate commitments are changing the way we operate buildings. Modern technology enhancements combined with a better, deeper understanding of the built environment will help cities and states curb harmful emissions. The greatest effort will be deploying these solutions at scale, but if we work together, we can move towards a cleaner, healthier environment where everyone profits. 

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