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3 Steps to Decarbonize Buildings

Jun 13, 2024 | Public | 0 comments

 

Here are three concrete and effective ways for facility managers to reduce their buildings’ carbon footprint

Commercial buildings are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse emissions come when burning fossil fuels, which for most commercial buildings in the United States typically means natural gas.  This has been a great past playbook because natural gas is a relatively inexpensive source of heating energy and can be piped underground.   

Fortunately, there are several strategies that can be employed to decarbonize these structures, contributing to a greener and more sustainable future.  It won’t be easy, it won’t be quick, but there is a playbook and fortunately, federal, state, and utility funding to help pay for some of the costs. 

First Step in Decarbonization – Energy Efficiency 

The first approach is to prioritize energy efficiency. This involves a close examination of the building’s envelope, including insulation, windows, and air sealing. Upgrading to more efficient materials and technologies can significantly reduce energy consumption. Additionally, implementing smart building technologies with features like occupancy sensors and automated lighting controls can further optimize energy use. 

Energy efficiency is always a critical first step for several reasons.  First, other projects typically can be more capital-intensive in nature, but energy efficiency can pay for itself.  Along these lines, energy efficiency can typically have a faster payback, especially in the case of lighting upgrades.  So focusing on the lowest hanging fruit, so to speak, can lead to momentum that can help in the long run for projects in decarbonization.  

Second, the transition away from natural gas typically means more electricity demand in a building.  Offsetting as much of that demand now can set you up for success on future electrification projects.    

Finally, any envelope of weatherization work that you do now will reduce the size of the system you need to heat and cool, saving money on future work.  Putting off a window replacement project because you are considering other projects? Well, more efficient windows will mean less heat loss and therefore smaller systems will be needed down the road. So that project will pay dividends on future project costs, in addition to the benefits and energy savings today.  

Next Stop in Decarbonization – Water and Heating without Natural Gas 

Replacing fossil fuel-based water and heating systems with electric heat pumps offers a major advantage. Heat pumps can efficiently transfer heat, reducing reliance for on-site combustion of fossil fuels. In fact, heat pumps are 3-5 times more efficient in how they heat and cool a space compared to traditional methods. Similarly, electric-driven heat pump-based appliances and water heaters can be implemented to eliminate reliance on natural gas or propane.   

Not only are heat pumps being used in water heaters, but modern washer and dryers also have heat pump-based systems that save energy. In fact, one of the great benefits of heat pump-based dryers is that they do not need an outside way to vent or gas service, so you can literally add a washer and dryer to a space in your building that has water access and a typical power outlet.  This is a game changer for so many spaces that require washing linens and clothes.   

This same idea applies to hot water – buildings typically had two options, very expensive and high ampacity electric tanked water heaters or natural gas water heaters with an outside vent.  But now, buildings can explore tankless water heaters for spots that need a huge amount of hot water, or tanked heat pump systems that can really use a trickle of energy to efficiently heat water. 

Final Step in Decarbonization – Where Does your Electricity Come From? 

The final step to decarbonize a building is to think about where electricity comes from.  Some buildings naturally benefit from solar photovoltaics (PVs) for a variety of reasons. There are a wide variety of public incentives that help make the decision most cost effective, including grants, rebates and tax incentives.   

Buildings can consider a system on their roof, or if adjacent property is available, a ground mount system can be very effective. Both of these can be evaluated with an experienced contractor – and starting with your local utility company for incentives and using their recommended partners is a great starting point.   

Solar PV systems can be either purchased outright, or many buildings go with a Power Purchasing Agreement, where the system is free and you continue to buy your electricity from the investor that owns the solar array on your property.   

Those that do not have a good roof, adjacent property, or good sunlight can also purchase commercial RECs for green power in the short run as the grid gets more decarbonized itself.   

By Jamie Johnson, Contributing Writer

Jamie Johnson is CEO and Founder of Verde Energy Efficiency Experts. 

 




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