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Building performance standards, sustainability get new push in US

24 January 2022 Kevin Adler

The US federal government, states, and cities have launched a new program, the Building Performance Standards Coalition, to push forward Biden administration initiatives to reduce the GHG emissions from the energy use in buildings.

Announced on 21 January to coincide with Biden's speech at the US Conference of Mayors meeting, the $1.8-billion program aims to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency and develop and implement new building codes.

Funding comes from the "Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,'' more commonly known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill, that Biden signed on 15 November. This includes:

  • $500 million for the Department of Energy's (DOE) State Energy Program, which provides funding and technical assistance to state, local, and tribal governments;
  • $550 million for DOE's Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant program to assist governments to develop and manage energy efficiency and conservation policy as well as projects;
  • $250 million for grants to establish states' revolving loan funds for energy efficiency; and
  • $500 million for grants to fund efficiency and renewable energy projects in public schools.

To date, 33 state and local governments have signed up to work with DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the new coalition. The participants represent 22% of the US population and nearly 20% of the nation's building footprint (more than 15 billion square feet of floor space), the White House said.

"Energy efficiency improvements and electrification in multifamily buildings improve indoor air quality, eliminate drafts, and protect residents from extreme heat-delivering health benefits and lower health care costs," the White House said in a statement.

Building on federal initiatives

The new coalition continues a Biden priority of reducing the GHG footprint of the built environment.

DOE says there are almost 129 million non-industrial buildings in the US that collectively use 75% of the nation's electricity and 40% of its energy. Energy use in buildings is responsible for 35% of US CO2 emissions, according to DOE.

For those reasons, buildings were cited specifically on 22 April 2021 when Biden raised the US goal for carbon reduction by 2030 to 52-55% below a 2005 baseline. "The United States can create good-paying jobs and cut emissions and energy costs for families by supporting efficiency upgrades and electrification in buildings through support for job-creating retrofit programs and sustainable affordable housing, wider use of heat pumps and induction stoves, and adoption of modern energy codes for new buildings," the White House said at the time.

Since that time, Biden and federal agencies have taken multiple steps in that direction, both on energy efficiency and on mass electrification of buildings.

On 8 December, he issued a directive for federal buildings and facilities to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045 through energy efficiency, electrification, and use of carbon-free electricity.

In May 2021, Biden launched a program to train workers in retrofitting federal buildings to reduce energy use. January's announcement about the new coalition said that DOE already has granted over $25 million in funds under this project, working closely with labor unions to train a new generation of construction workers.

Also last May, DOE's Better Buildings Initiative and the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched the Low-Carbon Buildings Pilot Program, with 55 companies, housing agencies, and other stakeholders participating over the next two years to "demonstrate pathways to achieve low or zero carbon in buildings and manufacturing plants."

Cities, states take lead

At the core of the new program is a pledge by the states of Colorado and Washington, Washington, DC, and 30 local governments (include population centers such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle) to develop stricter building performance standards. Each government pledged to advance legislation or regulation by Earth Day 2024 (22 April).

Cities in the coalition already have their own ambitious climate targets that include reducing buildings' carbon footprints.

Chicago pledged net-zero emissions by 2035, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the new program a prime opportunity to contribute to climate solutions, especially as buildings are responsible for 70% of the city's carbon emissions. "The City of Chicago is committed to taking bold action to mitigate the climate crisis and is prioritizing the equitable reduction of building emissions to create meaningful outcomes. This will result in highly efficient buildings in all communities across Chicago, improved health outcomes, household savings, and the activation of the green economy," she said.

Lightfoot created a Building Decarbonization Working Group which will soon present a report to the city government on best practices among peer cities, and in June it announced the winner of a competition to build a net-zero, 20-story, 100-unit affordable high-rise building.

Seattle announced a plan to implement new standards for buildings 20,000 square feet or larger (commercial or multi-family residential) by July 2022, plus a ban on fossil fuel use in city-owned buildings by 2035. While buildings are only 33% of the city's carbon emissions, Mayor Jenny Durkan said they are the fastest growing component. "We've invested billions to support green transportation, efficient buildings, and other policies to mitigate climate change, but we know we need to do more to reach net zero," she said.

Environmental justice will be a priority for coalition members as well. "With support from philanthropic organizations, local governments will ground their climate work in equity and justice through community-driven processes. And nonprofit organizations will offer expertise in building decarbonization, including localized policy approaches and stakeholder engagement," the White House said.

Already underway is an effort in this area by DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. It soon will announce the winner of a grant to develop "stretch codes" to further enhance building efficiency and incorporate environmental justice.

Overall, DOE will contribute to the Building Standards Performance Coalition by providing states and cities with analysis of building stock and data through its Building Technology Office, and it will coordinate a sharing of best practices for building performance standards and obtaining public and private sector financing. The office is running a grant program through 2026 to work with local agencies, associations of building and design professionals, and energy advocacy groups to enhance and implement new building codes. The office will start a loan program to states later this year so that they can conduct energy audits on buildings.

EPA's support will come through its Climate Protection Partnerships Division, which will create new metrics under its Energy STAR program to enable jurisdictions to model the impact of their policies and report back on what has been achieved.

Posted 24 January 2022 by Kevin Adler, Chief Editor


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