Why Cities Must Make Energy-Wasting Buildings More Efficient

This article was originally posted by U.S. News on June 23, 2020.
Written by Steven Nadel, Executive Director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

In order to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the owners of the Empire State Building in New York City reduced the building’s energy consumption by nearly 40%. Credit; Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

PICTURE ALL OF THE stores, offices, houses and apartment buildings in our cities. Then consider the appliances and electronics used in them along with the heating and air conditioning. Add up all the electricity they use and the fuels burned inside them, and buildings are responsible for nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Remarkably, apart from building codes governing new construction and efficiency standards for some appliances, there are essentially no limits on the greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings. Given the urgency of the climate challenge, it’s time for city and state leaders to take a bold step: Set reasonable limits on emissions from buildings, requiring energy-efficiency retrofits for most.

Making our buildings more energy efficient is one of the fastest, most cost-effective ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The owners of the Empire State Building, for example, have reduced the building’s energy consumption by nearly 40%. But that’s the exception, not the norm.

We have a host of programs ⁠— supported by the federal government, utilities, and many state and local governments ⁠— that incentivize building owners to make efficiency upgrades. These programs have made good progress, but it’s just not enough. At the current rate, it will take more than 60 years to complete whole-building retrofits on all commercial buildings, and about 500 years to complete whole-building retrofits on all homes and apartments.

That’s time we don’t have. We need to make deep cuts to our carbon emissions in the coming years and decades. That’s why cities need to set limits now.

Sound too difficult? It’s already happening. In just the past 18 months, the trend has taken off, from Washington, D.C. to New York City to Washington state to St. Louis, where the mayor signed a plan into law just last month.

The plans, known as building performance standards, require buildings larger than a certain size to meet an energy efficiency standard, based on either how much carbon they emit or how much energy they use.

There are countless ways building owners can improve energy efficiency, including better sealing of gaps to the outdoors, replacing old HVAC systems, upgrading lighting, and installing smart energy management systems.

Building performance standards let the owners and managers of a building choose the most cost-effective measures to implement, based on their unique circumstances. And the standards generally give them roughly five years to make the improvements. As long as they achieve the target, they’re free to get there however they like.

These policies could make an enormous impact. In a report released on June 22, my organization, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, found that if cities across the country applied building performance standards to two-thirds of existing buildings, we could reduce carbon emissions in 2050 by more than the current annual emissions from all buildings, power plants and vehicles in New York state.

City and state lawmakers should consult a wide array of local stakeholders before setting building performance standards. And they should provide technical assistance and financing to building owners and prepare for effective enforcement. It’s a long-term commitment.

It’s a commitment that’s worth it. The policies will spur job creation, particularly in the construction sector. And all that work today is an investment in a future where building owners will have far lower energy costs, as well as more comfortable tenants.

Ultimately, our cities will not thrive if we don’t take significantly stronger moves to avert climate change now. Tackling the carbon emissions from inefficient buildings is a must.