During his first 100 days in office, President Biden made bold claims to re-establish the US as a leader in the fight against climate change. Resigning the COP21 Paris agreement and issuing an executive order to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and put the US on an “irreversible path” to a net-zero economy by 2050.
The US has always been a leader in the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency technology but has lagged behind in the decarbonization of its own economy. Now, after laying roadmaps for a green revolution of US domestic power generation and infrastructure, the president has announced a comprehensive plan to tackle the nation’s highly inefficient building stock.
“The President recognizes the opportunity that retrofitting and modernizing our nation’s existing buildings presents, which is why his American Jobs Plan promises to build, rehabilitate, and retrofit more than two million homes across the country while also improving our nation’s federal facilities,” reads a recent statement. “This effort will create new domestic manufacturing opportunities for electric heating and cooling technology, invest in research and development to spur smart building advances, and forge collaborations that will enable buildings to be powered by clean electricity.”
Jobs are always an important message for American presidents to attach to new clean energy policies that directly challenge jobs in traditional industries such as coal, oil, and gas. The job creation potential of Biden’s green plan is vast and distributed, however. Independent analysts at the Coalition for Green Capital and Rewiring America issued a report today that shows how Biden’s efficient buildings strategy could create nearly 700,000 good-paying, local jobs in every region in the country. That is on top of the jobs that would be created by widespread distributed renewable energy generation.
“Constructing, retrofitting, and electrifying America’s buildings is only possible with a strong, skilled, diverse, and growing workforce. DOE announced it is expanding its support for organizations – including unions, trade associations, and educational institutions – that prepare people to join the workforces of the future, and support career pathways for a diverse, qualified, and well-paid workforce that can support the development/construction of high-performance buildings,” reads the statement. “Through technical assistance and funding awards, DOE will fund up to $30M of these efforts with workforce development and job-creation leaders.”
Like we have seen in many other environmentally developed markets, the low-hanging fruit of government-led building efficiency programs are government buildings themselves. Such programs are far less effective on the private sector if the public sector driving the change is also maintaining a highly inefficient building stock. So, the federal government will launch an efficiency initiative for its own many buildings around the country, Biden is also going a step further by running and testing a new building performance standard for its own building portfolio.
“CEQ is launching an interagency Federal sustainability effort with GSA, DOE, and EPA to develop the first-ever building performance standards (BPS) for the federal government. The BPS will establish metrics, targets, and tracking methods to reach federal carbon emissions goals,” the Whitehouse announced. “The performance standards will identify progressive performance milestones as well as the resources that agencies need to meet them.”
The administration also appears to appreciate the important role of the private sector in making federal buildings more efficient, as well as expanding that approach to the wider market with bold new public-private partnerships. The DOE, in coordination with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has already announced the first 55 commercial, industrial, and multifamily organizations to participate in the Low-Carbon Buildings Pilot program, which will share lessons learned for real-world pathways to low and no emission buildings.
The DOE has also teamed up with the Advanced Water Heating Initiative to increase market adoption of high-efficiency, grid-connected heat pump water heaters in residential and commercial buildings —up to four times more efficient than conventional systems. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is launching new residential and commercial sector partnerships to accelerate efficiency and electrification retrofits with a focus on underserved residential households through the ENERGY STAR Home Upgrade program.
“The Biden Administration is dedicated to working with the private sector, labor unions, building and home owners, and manufacturers in the building industry to electrify and modernize new and existing buildings,” the government statement read. “Additionally, the Administration will support city, state, and tribal governments through expanded partnerships to develop new tools and resources to make buildings more energy-efficient, affordable, and healthy.”
To drive innovation, the DOE announced the Initiative for Better Energy, Emissions, and Equity (E3 Initiative) last month, putting $10M toward accelerating the research and adoption of heat pump technologies. The new national research initiative focused on innovating clean and efficient building heating and cooling systems, including a new Cold Climate Heat Pump Technology Challenge and a collaborative partnership to accelerate the development of lower to no global warming potential refrigerants that can be quickly commercialized.
For many, the pinnacle of Biden’s plan is the release of the Grid-interactive Efficient Buildings (GEB) Roadmap. The guidance includes 14 recommendations to better integrate buildings with solar and wind power through the smart operation of electricity demand and storage. Better building-to-grid communication can release new levels of flexibility, choice, and control in smart buildings, thereby finding efficiency around the behaviors and preferences of building managers and occupants. The Whitehouse estimates that national adoption of GEBs would create savings of $100–200 billion across the electric power system and could decrease emissions in the power sector by 6% per year over the next two decades.
“GSA is releasing a blueprint to integrate grid-interactive technologies into federal building renovation and improvement projects, particularly using energy savings, and utility energy savings contracts,” the administration states. “The blueprint puts practical guidance and tools into the hands of building operators to help them integrate GEB technologies into current and future performance contracts.”
On paper, this is a bold plan for a nation that has fallen behind in the global environmental movement in recent years, but the true test will come from the proposal’s acceptance in political circles and wider society. While the entrenched influence of the fossil fuel lobby on US politics presents a barrier, the new jobs, and energy bill savings of up to $750 per year for nearly 12 million mostly low- to moderate-income American households could sway public opinion. Not to mention the plan’s impact on climate change, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40 million metric tons a year by 2030 —the equivalent of taking more than eight million cars off the road.