The Green New Deal resolution, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), has sparked a rich, and at times surreal, debate in Washington, about how to take on the dual crises of climate change and growing inequality. Though the Senate voted down the resolution on Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez says she is now drafting legislation based on the resolution’s principles.
One of the elements that has caused the most consternation among critics on the right is its aspiration toward “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States,” along with building new buildings to the highest energy standards.
Conservatives have spun this up into a full invasion of federal bureaucrats. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell says they’ll be nosing around your home and business, “forcing you to pay for costly updates.” New York Times columnist David Brooks cites the section on buildings as one way the Green New Deal (a “fantasy,” he calls it) would centralize “power in the hands of the Washington elite.” Scary!
The irony is that among climate policy wonks, the call to reduce building emissions is one of the more banal elements of the resolution. Anyone who has studied the problem of reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to net zero — “deep decarbonization,” in the lingo — knows that buildings are a top agenda item.
The reason is simple: Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of the greenhouse gases in the US. Those emissions come, in part, from the fossil fuels (primarily natural gas these days but also heating oil) burned to heat (and cool) the water and space inside buildings.
That means the solution, alongside reducing and eliminating emissions from the electricity sector, is getting all those heating and cooling systems replaced by systems that are hooked up to the grid. In other words: electrification. (Electrify everything!) Happily for nervous conservatives, most of this work will be done by the private sector, guided by public regulation, so your home will not be invaded by jackbooted efficiency thugs.
I wrote about the need for building electrification last month, in the context of some news out of California (a new alliance formed to advance best practice in the space). California is, unsurprisingly, leading the pack on building electrification, but word is spreading and more and more jurisdictions are beginning to investigate or implement electrification programs.
The range and ambition of these programs puts the lie to conservative fears: It’s difficult, but tackling the building sector is possible. And it’s happening without federal bureaucrats.
Here are six jurisdictions taking the lead.
Massachusetts has always been a national leader in energy efficiency, but it upped its game again in January, passing a three-year energy efficiency plan that recognizes the benefits of electrification.
For the first time, the state’s utilities will offer financial incentives for “fuel switching” — leaving behind the oil and propane boilers common in the region in favor of air source heat pumps.
There are also several bills in the state legislature that would affect buildings. One, H 2836, would target economy-wide renewable energy by 2045. Another three would boost heat pump deployment, establish a program to publicize and train a workforce for electrification, and integrate incentives for electrification into zoning law.
Elsewhere in Massachusetts, the city of Boston is working on an update to its Climate Plan (due this summer). It is expected to draw on a report it commissioned in January, showing that two-thirds of the city’s emissions are produced by buildings.
Among the three strategies the report recommends (alongside energy efficiency and purchasing 100 percent clean energy) is electrifying the building stock as much as possible — which will be no small feat in a city rich with very old, very famous, and very leaky buildings.« go to news