Commercial Building Decarbonization and Why It Matters

With America feeling the impact of climate change through extreme weather events like prolonged droughts and catastrophic hurricanes, finding ways to reduce the number of greenhouse gasses (GHG) released into the atmosphere every year is increasingly top-of-mind for businesses, government leaders, and the public.

One area where the United States has a lot of room to improve emissions is through the energy and efficiency of commercial buildings. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, commercial buildings are responsible for 826 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year, which accounts for 16 percent of U.S. emissions overall.

What exactly is decarbonization?

Decarbonization is the process of reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Although carbon is not the only greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, it is the most significant. Whether referred to as ‘net zero’, ‘full decarbonization’, or ‘carbon neutrality’, related environmental goals measure all significant GHG emissions and convert them to an equivalent ton of carbon for simple benchmarking and tracking.

Reductions can be achieved through several different methods, including implementing “smart building” technologies that allow energy use to be carefully monitored and regulated, maximizing energy efficiency during the construction of new buildings, retrofits that increase the overall efficiency of existing systems, or producing energy from sustainable sources like geothermal, wind and solar. To fully decarbonize, efficiency, technology changes, renewable energy, and offsets are all required.

Why is decarbonization important?

Not only is climate change an environmental issue, but it has also been recognized as the most significant danger to human life from the effects of more frequent and more severe natural disasters. The impacts of climate change are inequitable, and most likely to impact poor and disadvantaged communities.

Decarbonization-related environmental goals are incredibly important, but they do not define why healthcare systems, higher education institutions, and other organizations exist in the first place. What is the point of a school if there are not sufficient light and comfortable conditions for students and teachers to effectively educate and conduct research? State-funded institutions must remain good stewards of taxpayer money or they will unfairly burden the community.

Healthcare spaces, which are built to protect and enhance the quality of life, ironically use more energy per square foot and produce more emissions than any other category of commercial building in the United States. It’s more than double the national average for commercial buildings. Many types of educational facilities are also significantly higher energy users than average.

Owners are faced with so many choices about how to procure supplies, what types of technologies to use, and how to operate what they have. Serving a core mission can be accomplished in a number of ways, but successful decarbonization allows an organization to do this while minimizing operational waste and proving environmental responsibility.

The problem of wasted energy

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, at least 30 percent of the energy used by commercial buildings in the United States is wasted. Campuses can include dozens of large buildings, built to radically different efficiency standards that were in place for several decades. When the buildings rely on outdated control systems and aging infrastructure, the resulting performance is usually well below peak efficiency. As a result of these wasteful effects, many campuses face unnecessarily high energy expenditures every year and are more vulnerable to fluctuating energy costs.

For large commercial campuses, with millions of square feet of buildings, the cost and environmental savings to be gained through efforts like retro-commissioning, waste heat recovery, and infrastructure improvements can be substantial. Saving energy has the win-win impact of both reducing annual spending and minimizing environmental impacts.

How is decarbonization done?

For a large owner, decarbonization requires changes to how infrastructure is operated, what technologies are used, where energy is sourced from, and offsets for emissions that can’t be controlled or avoided.

The transition to true ‘carbon neutrality’ is a long and complicated effort, requiring significant time, talent, and capital to make it a reality. This process will be most cost-effective and most successful at avoiding common pitfalls by splitting the process into the following steps:

      • Clarify the goal.
      • Baseline and benchmark performance
      • Establish top-down ‘budgetary’ needs.
      • Identify specific opportunities that can be prioritized.
      • Roadmap the most cost-effective path to the end goal
      • Procure/finance and implement changes.
      • Monitor, maintain, and expand results.

The value adds of decarbonization and building improvements

Most of the headlines around decarbonization efforts are rightly focused on mitigating the effects of climate change that threaten our shared environmental future. Even beyond those factors, there are many additional benefits of commercial building decarbonization and the resulting infrastructure improvements.

Another area where commercial building improvements can have a sizable impact is indoor air quality. This can be particularly important for universities and hospitals, especially as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Building decarbonization often involves taking a close look at HVAC systems, replacing, repairing, or recalibrating the various components so they work together better than originally designed. In addition to boosting overall energy efficiency, this process often improves both ventilation capacity and air filtration. The result is heating, cooling, and air-handling systems that are better able to reduce dust, mold, allergens and other contaminants, with a corresponding improvement in overall air quality.

Improvements with decarbonization also have the potential to make infrastructure much more resilient against factors that can threaten mission-critical services. For example, Bernhard recently completed a multi-year energy project at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). A major component of the project was the completion of a $50 million power plant that can supply the entire electrical needs of the campus on demand if primary power is lost.

In addition to improved energy stability, the result is better energy security for UAMS, allowing the campus to ride out any future electrical interruptions without impacting care. At a time when everything from more powerful storms to a troubling rise of domestic terror attacks on electrical substations threatens the stability of the power grid in the U.S., that’s increasingly important.

Ready to see what decarbonization can do for your environmental footprint, annual energy spend, and resilience? Bernhard knows decarbonization and has been leading the industry for years. We can show you the way to a brighter, more efficient future for your large-campus facility. Learn how to take the first step by contacting us today.

About the Author:

With a unique blend of experience in business and engineering, Christopher Benson has been able to substantially reduce emissions, water consumption, and operational costs across a massive portfolio. He has proven that ambitious sustainability goals are not only achievable, but with the right leadership, the efforts can also make great business sense. Chris leads the development of Energy-as-a-Service projects using public-private partnerships and efficiency to finance major infrastructure projects in higher education. Just prior to Bernhard, Chris managed the University of Utah Facilities Sustainability and Energy division, where his team led carbon neutrality initiatives, benchmarking performance, and utility procurement.