Today, constructing and operating buildings account for 39% of economy-wide U.S. carbon emissions. In urban areas, those emissions are even higher, as much as 70% of total carbon emissions.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the total number of buildings in the country increased 6% from 2012 to 2016, and growth is expected to continue at a rapid pace.
The energy system is at the forefront of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across economic sectors. Electrification in combination with grid decarbonization is a viable pathway to significantly reduce the carbon content of buildings.
In existing buildings alone, electrification and energy efficiency measures can decrease carbon emissions by as much as 40 percent. Just last month, the U.S. government announced an $830 million fund for the Inflation Reduction Act’s Green and Resilient Retrofit Program to directly invest in energy efficiency and emissions reductions, clean energy, and other strategies for multifamily housing.
The decarbonization of the built environment could include reduction or elimination of fossil fuel-based energy use. For new and existing buildings, the four main pillars of decarbonization include energy efficiency, electrification, flexibility, and low-carbon fuels.
For example, efficiency measures include improvements in end-use equipment and appliances that allow for more energy-efficient space conditioning, water heating, and cooking. Electrified end uses, such as heat pumps for space heating and cooling, are also contributing to emission reductions. Deep efficiency addresses all aspects of the building, including wall and roof materials, insulation, windows, and foundation.
An effective building decarbonization strategy may also consider how policy, technology, and market drivers influence customer choices. Communities and customers may be able to access incentives, rebates, and financing mechanisms to offset all or some of the upfront costs of decarbonization measures. An important consideration is to achieve customer-centric, affordable energy in buildings to ensure the energy transition is equitable for all.
EPRI has been at the forefront of research and demonstrations focused on Advanced Buildings and Communities, most recently represented in its “Connected Communities” project. The U.S. Department of Energy-backed research is focused on decarbonizing multifamily housing to ensure an affordable, equitable path to a net-zero carbon economy. EPRI is collaborating with Seattle City Light and the New York Power Authority to research scalable approaches to transform multifamily housing into efficient, grid-interactive buildings.
These buildings can be integrated with the electric grid through innovative technologies, which could include energy storage, renewable energy, or microgrids. Field demonstrations from the project could help identify multiple ways to decarbonize buildings. Benefits may include reduced carbon emissions and more affordable electric bills, which translate to more comfort, cost-savings, and convenience for energy users.
Supporting and motivating the innovative startup community is key to achieving these decarbonization goals. These new technologies may accelerate the market-readiness of advanced buildings.
Promoting collaboration that can lower costs and potentially reduce innovation risk through accelerators, like Incubatenergy Labs, can be a game-changer. EPRI has facilitated hundreds of engagements where technology startups collaborate with energy companies and industry stakeholders. Participating utilities come together to define innovation challenge topics, and the program matches startups and energy companies to demonstrate emerging technologies in areas such as decarbonization, clean energy, and electrification.
These technology advances, which may include smart controls, analytics, and efficiency measures, also ease constraints on the electric grid and reduce peak demand. The resulting grid benefits lower energy costs, and the savings can be passed on to customers, providing economic benefits to low-income communities that need it most.
The reliance on power grids to support increased electrification means that energy companies are planning now for the infrastructure needed to supply and distribute electricity in a sustainable way. Part of the investment costs to decarbonize buildings can be moderated with strategic demand-side management. This potentially reduces energy consumption and peak energy demand and enables the flexibility to help integrate cleaner energy into buildings.
Decarbonizing buildings can play a critical part of achieving carbon reduction goals. Low-carbon resources, energy efficiency, and rapid electrification remain core strategies for achieving the nation’s net-zero target. Focusing the research community on buildings as the point of integration for industry technologies and customer programs can play a key role.
This work can also bring significant advantages to marginalized communities, allowing them to fully participate and benefit from the energy transition.
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About the author: David Porter is Vice President, Electrification & Sustainable Energy Strategy for the Electric Power Research Institute. In this role, he provides executive oversight and leadership to the teams responsible for EPRI's R&D of electrification and customer solutions, sustainability and ecosystem stewardship, and environmental health and safety. With more than 30 years of energy industry and executive leadership experience, Porter has worked across a variety of utility operations. Prior to joining EPRI in 2009, Porter held a variety of executive and management positions in the energy field at Florida Power Corporation and Duke Power, as well as in telecommunications and management consulting