The Next Energy Frontier: Cutting Fossil Fuel Use in Buildings

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To cut emissions by 80% economy-wide and offset the challenges of reductions from industry and transportation, we must significantly reduce fossil fuel use in buildings in order to slash building emissions around 95 percent, argues Pierre Delforge, director of the high-tech sector energy efficiency, energy, and transportation program at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

While the amount of pollution from burning fuel in homes and commercial buildings is a relatively small part of total emissions today — just 11% of U.S. energy-related emissions — it is a roadblock to reaching our 2050 climate targets, according to long-term climate mitigation analyses.

fossil fuel use in buildings

Collaborative global initiatives can help individual countries to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to levels consistent with limiting the anthropogenic increase in global mean surface temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius (°C). Such limits will require that global net GHG emissions approach zero by the second half of the 21st century. It will only be achieved through steep reductions in energy-related CO2 emissions through a transformation of energy systems, a transition referred to “deep decarbonization.”

Fossil fuel use in buildings has been the norm in all our lifetimes. Yet climate pollution can come from our furnaces and hot water heaters when they are burning natural gas, heating oil, or propane. Cutting fossil fuel use in buildings is the next barrier to be shattered in the pursuit of clean energy, and the decarbonization of US buildings is a major opportunity for states and local jurisdictions to demonstrate strong climate leadership.

Indeed, the NRDC cites research that says California’s residential and commercial buildings today are the next “frontier” of climate change activism, as buildings are responsible for similar levels of climate pollution as all in-state power plants, mostly from natural gas used in furnaces and water heaters.

California’s Progress toward Cutting Fossil Fuel Use in Buildings

fossil fuel use in buildings
Illustration courtesy of NRDC

Part of NRDC’s work in energy helps policymakers to identify multiple pathways to a low-carbon future for the US.

They argue that, at a time when the federal government has backed away from its environmental responsibilities, state and city leadership like that of California “becomes all the more vital.”

Buildings can definitely inhibit US states from achieving their promulgated climate and clean air goals. But how can we reduce the carbon pollution from fuels burned inside buildings for space and water heating? Policymakers in California took some encouraging steps to address building emissions in 2017.

◊ Energy efficiency targets for gas and electricity uses: The first steps toward cost-effective and beneficial electrification in California buildings were included in the Doubling Energy Efficiency Savings by 2030 provision of Senate Bill 350. The bill points to electrification of building elements like space and water heating where this results in energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions and is part of an initiative to establish energy efficiency targets that achieve a statewide, cumulative doubling of energy efficiency savings in electricity and natural gas final end uses.

◊ Updates to current building energy codes: Instead of incentivizing gas-fired space and water heaters by not taking their higher greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution into consideration, January, 2020 code changes — still in the proposal change — can reflect the advantages of today’s high-efficiency electric space and water heaters, when powered by increasingly clean electricity.

◊ Weigh strategies across agencies to increase electrification: The California Air Resource Board has altered its Climate Change Scoping Plan to include a resolution to evaluate and pursue strategies to increase electrification in buildings where demonstrated to reduce GHGs. This means that collaboration between the California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission, which oversee building energy policy and investor-owned utility policy, will take place. Conversations lead to new understandings.

◊ Building efficiency and electrification are lowest cost means to achieve climate goals: Improving energy efficiency and using more clean electricity in buildings and transportation allows California to achieve its 2030 climate goals at far less cost than other scenarios. That’s according to a report commissioned by Southern California Edison.

◊ Zero net energy housing projects across the state are clean energy models: A zero energy building produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements, thereby reducing the use of non-renewable energy in the building sector. Small California projects across the state are demonstrating the technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness of high efficiency heat pumps for space and water heating.

fossil fuel use in buildings

National Resources Defense Council Says California Can Do More to Reduce Pollution from Buildings

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) promotes policies that make cars, buildings, appliances, and everyday gadgets more efficient. They have advocated with the US government to adopt the first-ever national limits on carbon pollution from power plants. As part of their efforts to collaborate with other countries to promote an accelerated transition to a clean energy future, the NRDC examines critical environmental challenges and identifies the most effective solutions.

“Strong climate action is imperative to prevent the worst impacts of a warming planet,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in 2016 when California Governor Jerry Brown signed historic legislation to establish North America’s most aggressive emissions reduction targets. If successful, California, which is the world’s sixth-largest economy, will reduce carbon pollution to at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. “California is showing our nation and world what can, and must, be done to reduce the dangerous pollution fueling climate change.” But the NRDC says that there is more that California can do to lead the way.

Delforge argues that, while it is an important first step to build upon, the Doubling Energy Efficiency Savings Plan only included a fraction of the potential for cost-effective and beneficial electrification in California buildings. He says that more work is needed to ensure that future code updates fully align with California’s climate and clean air goals and that the Climate Change Scoping Plan does not yet include specific building decarbonization strategies, which would an important step for CARB to pursue in 2018. Delforge sees an important California challenge is to scale up the use of zero net energy housing projects from a small share of homes and building to much of new construction and retrofits by 2030.

In sum, Delforge beckons California to continue its progress to reduce fossil fuel use in buildings as part of the larger plan to achieve global climate goals by:

Making building decarbonization a priority in California’s climate strategy;

Setting targets for the electrification of space and water heating in residential and commercial buildings;

Removing short-term regulatory barriers to electrification; and,

Providing alternative funding sources that will help building decarbonization technology come down the cost curve, just like solar panels and electric vehicles.

fossil fuel use in buildings
Diagram courtesy of Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc.

Photo by mariosp on / CC BY-SA

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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