What role do buildings play in the energy transition?
February 10, 2021
February 10, 2021
The path to change starts with collaboration between the buildings and energy industries
When we talk about the energy transition, we must consider the whole picture. As much as we tend to gravitate toward the energy we produce, we must also consider the energy that we consume. How can we manage the energy consumption of our communities more efficiently? What industries can help us in our actions to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? And how can energy providers work with these industries to find opportunities for reducing energy consumption?
One industry that is at the forefront of this challenge is the buildings industry. Why? Because buildings are responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. The architecture and engineering industry has realized that to successfully reach a carbon neutral future by 2050, we must drive this figure down—preferably sooner rather than later. In fact, a study by the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that global buildings emissions must decrease by 50% by 2030. So, what can we do to effectively reduce these emissions? Let’s start with the following three goals:
While the number of verified net zero energy buildings being constructed is increasing, the pace is not fast enough. In fact, the New Buildings Institute national database of verified and emerging net zero buildings shows there are only 136 certified or verified net zero energy building projects across North America as of September 2020, with another 547 in progress.
In addition, we must shift from a focus on net zero energy to aiming for net zero carbon. That is, carbon neutral buildings that look not only at the units of energy consumed and offset but also the greenhouse gas emissions—which include carbon—associated with their fuel sources. So, what can we as architects and engineers do to accelerate the percentage of buildings, both old and new, that are achieving net zero goals?
Heading forward, building developers and local utility providers need to work together in stride, finding ways to optimize energy efficiency and provide cleaner energy to the communities they serve.
When it comes to new buildings, there are many methods—old and new—to reduce emissions and minimize a building’s carbon footprint. These are the top five ways to make your new building project more efficient:
While there may be fewer options when retrofitting existing buildings, there are still many ways to make them more efficient. These are the top five ways to make your existing building more energy efficient:
For any building project, understanding the load profile is extremely important throughout the decision-making process. The load profile refers to the projected energy use of your building. What are the most critical loads? What are the most unique loads? This data is key to optimizing energy efficiency for a building, and therefore the associated carbon emissions.
One of the most important methods of reducing energy consumption for your building—and for the surrounding community—is by improving the relationship between your building and the local power grid. Before this was a one-way relationship, with buildings receiving energy from the grid. But now it’s a two-way, mutually beneficial relationship. We call this grid citizenship.
Grid citizenship involves buildings with on-site renewables and battery storage redirecting energy back to the grid—hence the two-way relationship. It is made possible through coordination and collaboration with local utility providers. Not only does this build positive relationships with the local community but it's critical for identifying utility rates, clean energy incentives, and demand response programs that support the economics of the energy transition.
Considering the utility representative as a member of the project team—and engaging them early on—can have a positive impact on the long-term economics of the building. It is also important to understand how clean the grid is. Regions vary when it comes to the greenhouse gas intensity of the utility grid serving the building. So, that intensity can significantly impact decisions on the cleanest energy source for a building, as well as the role of on-site renewables, in meeting a carbon goal.
As I said earlier, buildings account for a significant contribution towards global GHG emissions—at almost 40%! If we hope to achieve the goals set by the Paris Climate Accord, the buildings industry must be part of the solution.
Heading forward, building developers and local utility providers need to work together in stride, finding ways to optimize energy efficiency and provide cleaner energy to the communities they serve. It is important to keep up to date with the current codes, regulations, and standards to achieve this. It is also key to understand where the codes are headed in the future—these will evolve and knowing them will keep you ahead of the game.