Local Government Leadership for Building Electrification

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This article is the last in a series referencing a paper Sue Coakley and I authored for the Electricity Journal. This special edition of the Electricity Journal titled “Energy Optimization is the Key to Affordable, Reliable Decarbonization” was coordinated by the Regulatory Assistance Project. NEEP’s contribution, Transforming our Buildings for a Low-Carbon Era: Five Key Strategies, discusses the most promising areas to advance building decarbonization and presents initial strategies to begin the transition to a low-carbon built environment.

The following extract from NEEP’s paper focuses on the final strategy presented and is augmented by additional discussion of some key points.

Strategy Five: Local Government Leadership for Building Electrification

Some of the most aggressive strategies in GHG reduction are being developed and implemented at the city level. The international Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Sierra Club’s growing network of over 100 U.S. cities pledging to use 100% renewable energy are two examples of pioneering city efforts. Cities have begun to tackle the issue of building electrification more directly. Eight U.S. cities across the country are participating in the Building Electrification Initiative (BEI), a project that emerged from city-led efforts within the GHG Neutral Cities Alliance. These cities are pursuing a range of actions to accelerate equitable building electrification strategies, including voluntary outreach and assistance programs, utility partnerships, and new codes that will eventually help achieve a widespread transition away from fossil fuel-based building systems in their communities.

When it comes to building decarbonization, cities have the ability to innovate in program design to accelerate voluntary local and regional action. New York City, for example, partnered with the state and its utilities to create innovative programs such as the NYC Retrofit Accelerator and the NYC GHG Challenge to build the market for energy efficiency upgrades. Many cities also have the ability to regulate building energy performance through their local building and energy codes by adopting advanced “stretch” codes, building energy rating and disclosure ordinances, and, very recently, minimum energy performance standards for existing buildings. More than 20 cities have enacted building performance ordinances that include energy benchmarking, with several leading cities including New York City and Washington, D.C. requiring aggressive levels of energy or GHG emission reductions from their larger buildings. In California, more than 30 cities are pursuing “reach codes” that will go beyond the already-stringent statewide energy code to encourage or require all-electric new construction, ensuring that the buildings of the future are being constructed today. The City of Vancouver, Canada is implementing a detailed and comprehensive Zero Emissions Buildings Plan that employs “catalyst tools” such as density bonuses, guidance, technical support, and, ultimately, building code requirements to transition its building stock to a zero GHG future.

Additional Discussion

Cities now clearly occupy a leadership position when it comes to GHG emission reductions. Cities have set very aggressive goals and have some new tools and strategies to move decarbonization forward. The remaining questions are related to how rapidly and effectively cities can actually move to scale up their efforts and have broad, economy-wide impacts.

To date, the most impactful strategies to reduce energy use have been three-fold: (1) product standards (national and state level), (2) building energy codes (usually developed nationally and adopted statewide, but many local communities are moving beyond these efforts to adopt more stringent codes), and (3) the enormous investments made by utilities (especially electric utilities) to reduce energy use as a more economic alternative to building new power plants. Decades of work went into these strategies. They have made major progress, but are nowhere near sufficient to accomplish GHG goals as currently implemented.

Cities can use some local version of product standards, as Berkeley has demonstrated with its new gas line regulations. Many cities are increasing code requirements, which primarily impact new construction and major renovation. Just a few utilities, so far, are breaking out of the box to support electrification of space and water heating, such as Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) with its very strong incentive programs. Cities can put pressure both on state regulators and directly on utilities to get electric utilities on board to advance electrification programs. A few municipal utilities are leading the way.

Other key strategy areas that can impact buildings:

  • Cities can bond for additional financing and support partnership development in a variety of ways to assist redevelopment and build new community infrastructure. Community-scale infrastructure is an area where major shifts in business-as-usual can occur. Part of the heat pump infrastructure can be community developed to serve multiple buildings, such as using waste heat from sewer lines and developing community-scale ground fields for ground source heat pumps.   
  • Cities can partner with other entities such as the regional energy efficiency organizations (NEEP, MEEA, NEEA, SWEEP, and SPEER) to tie into an array of existing efforts and provide support for regional change in markets and policies to increase adoption of advanced heat pump technologies.
  • Cities are already sharing their experiences through organizations like the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) and its affiliate organizations. There are a number of city networks that share information among peers.
  • NEEP provides support for mid-sized cities through its Community Action Planning for Energy Efficiency (CAPEE)  tool that provides support to augment local government staff in Northeast communities.

One recent developments is a “playbook” and support strategy orchestrated by Bloomberg Philanthropies for 25 leading U.S. cities. A second nascent effort, currently called RAPID, is attempting to identify the most impactful urban and suburban strategies for California with an initial organizational meeting planned for January. Both of these endeavors are designed to accelerate efforts for leading cities and create a pathway for fast followers.

Cities are leading in setting aggressive goals and bringing new tools and strategies that can support and expand longer-term energy efficiency and GHG efforts. The effort so far is hopeful and impressive, but key questions still remain:

  • How rapidly can these cities move into impactful strategies?
  • Can new partnerships be developed to expand impacts more broadly beyond government boundaries? And in particular,
  • How do we most effectively change the space and water heating technologies to decarbonize our buildings?

This blog is part of Building Decarb Central, a series of blogs and other resources aimed at providing a constant flow of information on building decarbonization. Be sure to check out our web portal for more stories, resources, and information.

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