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5 questions to ask before you write a decarbonization RFP

November 08, 2023

By Tanya Doran

Groups who do their homework have a better shot at building an energy-transition plan that meets their goals

A version of this blog appeared as “Five questions to ask before you write a decarbonization RFP” in Stantec Design Quarterly 19.

Decarbonization is on everyone’s mind. Corporations, organizations, and municipalities are now charged with creating a decarbonization strategy.

At some point on their sustainability journey, they will issue a request for proposals for a decarbonization project. But what they get back might not be what they really need. What could be an opportunity to revolutionize their operations for a long-term low- or zero-carbon future could end up missing the goal.

Here are five questions we suggest clients ask before writing that request for proposals.

Lakehouse in Denver, Colorado, is the first WELL multifamily residential building in Colorado. 

1. How do you define decarbonization?

Decarbonization RFPs can differ simply due to the variables related to defining the term. It’s a huge issue. Ask three people and you may get three different definitions. Some are calling decarbonization the equivalent to electrification. But it isn’’t, in all cases, purely electrification. It depends on grid intensities, differences between those grids, grid reliability, and the power source. We might make different decisions around decarbonization in a clean grid province or a clean grid market than we would in a more carbon-intensive grid.

Does your organization buy renewable energy certificates? This can influence your strategy.

How we define decarbonization has a lot to do with our view of energy transition itself. The crux of it is we are 26 years away from 2050 and our global carbon neutral goals. Equipment lifespan is about 25 years. The decisions we make today will impact zero carbon goals for 2050. Does that mean that we automatically select an electrified solution, with the presumption that all electricity will be clean by that point? No. Defining decarbonization is the first step in understanding your needs.

2. What are you looking for in terms of decarbonization?

We often talk to clients looking for a road map to decarbonization. One type of client is really asking for an energy audit—they want to know the baseline and the proposed energy conservation measures to decarbonize their portfolio of buildings. They don’t know where they are right now. They don’t understand their energy usage. They don’t know their natural gas consumption. They’re looking for either a building-by-building or a whole portfolio energy audit to help them set baselines and understand their starting point.

Another type of client already has a full baseline and knows exactly where their energy usage lies. They are prepared for an energy transition and the development of a plan to reach decarbonization goals. They’ve set clear goals for 2040 or 2050 and want to align their budget cycles with that decarbonization effort.

Then there’s a type of client in the middle. For example, one client asked us to build a road map based on the energy strategies we identified in an audit of the first 50 buildings in its 250-building portfolio. This client wants help with a policy to guide that transition.

Each client starts at a different place on the road to a low-carbon future. We can help organizations set and achieve goals at the right pace.

With a sense of the scope and complexity of your project and possible solutions, you should be better equipped to compare holistic solutions with minimal or piecemeal efforts.

3. Do you have mandates or procedures that align with your policies and goals?

It’s one thing to set a goal, it’s another thing to have a policy or a mandate that drives your project. Lessen the gray area. Even clients who have set clear goals for decarbonization are sometimes frozen and inactive. They might have public goals and clearly mandated documents that outline their targets and process. However, when it gets down to the individual building-by-building implementation level, they get caught in a discussion around whether those policies apply to that project.

Organizations often need advisers who can guide them internally regarding their policies and get them on the right side of that guiding document. Policy guidance can save money. On a recent project, we were at 66 percent design submission when the project went on hold for more than 6 months. The client revisited their guiding documents to see if indeed they needed to apply those carbon neutral goals to this project. Turns out they did.

This process, or lack thereof, feeds the myth that decarbonization or high-performing buildings are more expensive. They are certainly more expensive when we need to redo design studies and investigate and include potential on-site renewable energy options late in the design stage. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

4. Are you asking the right questions in your RFP and interview?

The better educated you are during the selection process, the better chance you’ll have to succeed. Once you’ve clarified your decarbonization goals and your policies, you should familiarize yourself with the wide range of design and engineering solutions available.

With a sense of the scope and complexity of your project and possible solutions, you should be better equipped to compare holistic solutions with minimal or piecemeal efforts. This will get you the level of services required, with an aligned budget, to meet your goals.

5. Are you considering changing codes and regulations?

Existing code may soon be obsolete. And it takes years for projects to go from vision to design to occupancy. Are you anticipating the changes in code and regulations that are coming to your market? Beyond the code iterations, what technology and to what kind of standards are you designing?

Look at adoption, application, and strategies in advanced markets and work with someone who can bring those groundbreaking approaches to your project, so you don’t fall behind the curve. Potentially, innovative strategies can reduce first costs, lessen operational costs, and help future-proof projects by minimizing carbon lock in.

The Green at West Village for the University of California Davis is part of the largest net zero community in North America.

Decarbonization RFP quick to-do list

Set goals and intentions and make sure that your RFP matches those. Establish your goals, understand the meaning of the terms you use, and ensure they reflect your intentions. If you want a project to be net zero carbon or net zero energy, know that those things can mean different things in different areas.

Do you have a sustainability strategy? How about a green building policy or guiding document that sets out your goals? In the absence of having criteria outlined at every individual RFP phase, setting guiding factors will be critical to your project success.

Update your standards and terminology. Certification standards are important and continue to move the market. It is critical you understand them.

Understand the methodology and expertise required to attain those goals. With goals and guides set early on, you should also have a general understanding of what is required to achieve them. Often, we help clients understand the appropriate methodology to achieve those goals. As targets increase, adaptation and mitigation strategies play a larger role in project delivery. This means the role of specialists and subject matter experts also increase in everything from life cycle cost analysis to climate resilience. Given the degree of expertise involved, you should ask questions to get a general sense of fees and methodology.

For example, you may need a full climate risk and resilience assessment, which is done by experts in climate science. This type of review considers the climate’s effect on the building. Our carbon impact team, on the other hand, looks at the building’s impact on the planet. They are two different types of expertise.

Consider what you’re paying for and what you need. Projects awarded based on the lowest fee are unlikely to feature a holistic approach to decarbonization. They could lead to “decarb lite” or a piecemeal method to your project. Working with an experienced, knowledgeable, and fully integrated advisory team from the start can limit unexpected costs and maximize your project.

Dream big and collaborate during the RFP writing process. Clients don’t always know what’s possible in terms of technology, design, and delivering low-carbon buildings. Chances are you can do more than you think for less by starting early and setting clear goals. In our practice, we’re often tasked with collaborating on these RFPs, working to both provide guidance and educate so that our clients, our practice, and our projects incorporate the latest ideas from the ground up.

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