Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings

The Green New Deal resolution, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), has sparked a rich, and at times surreal, debate in Washington, about how to take on the dual crises of climate change and growing inequality. Though the Senate voted down the resolution on Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez says she is now drafting legislation based on the resolution’s principles.

One of the elements 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.

The Central & Wolfe campus in Sunnyvale, California, received LEED Platinum certification, one of the highest ratings for green buildings.
Central & Wolfe

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.

1) California

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.

CitySquare, a planned net-zero-energy development in Irvine, California.

CitySquare, a planned net-zero-energy development in Irvine, California.
Meritage Homes

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:

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.

Calgren Dairy Fuels in Pixley, California, captures methane that would have vented into the atmosphere.

Calgren Dairy Fuels in Pixley, California, captures methane that would have vented into the atmosphere.

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.

Trump Tower in New York city.

Guess who’s going to have to meet new green building 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.

The American Geophysical Union’s new headquarters in Washington, DC, a net-zero-energy building.

The American Geophysical Union’s new headquarters in Washington, DC, a net-zero-energy building.
Hickok Cole

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.

Seattle’s Bullitt Center, arguably the greenest building in the country.

Seattle’s Bullitt Center, arguably the greenest building in the country.
Bullitt Center

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.

5) Massachusetts

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.

The R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a net-zero-energy building.

The R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a net-zero-energy building.

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.

Boulder Commons, a new net-zero energy development in Boulder, Colorado, by Morgan Creek Ventures.

Boulder Commons, a new net-zero energy development in Boulder, Colorado, by Morgan Creek Ventures.

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.

Further reading:

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