Redefining Building Efficiency: Carbon-emission reduction requires achieving energy goals first

By Susan DeGrane | Mar 15, 2023
A bottle filled with the word "CO2" sits on top of a hill, surrounded by solar panels and wind turbines. STOCK.ADOBE.COM / AAPSKY / KEGFYLD / SHUTTERSTOCK / MAN AS THEP

Switching to renewable energy sources is unlikely to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to cover the electrical demand that’s expected grow with millions of electric vehicles and efforts to phase out natural gas. But there is a silver lining.

Switching to renewable energy sources is unlikely to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to cover the electrical demand that’s expected grow with millions of electric vehicles and efforts to phase out natural gas. But there is a silver lining. 

The good news is that a major strategy for overcoming these hurdles—reducing energy consumption—is gaining momentum nationwide.

Stacey Paradis, executive director of Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, Chicago

“Using less energy is our focus, because energy efficiency will give you the most energy emission reduction sooner than any investment in clean energy,” said Stacey Paradis, executive director of the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA). “It will also reduce the energy burden and create jobs.”

Based in Chicago, MEEA is one of six regional energy-efficiency organizations recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Working as a collaborative network, MEEA engages local governments, industry members and other stakeholders in 13 Midwestern states to optimize energy generation, reduce consumption, create jobs and decrease carbon emissions.

A primary focus of MEEA is to reduce inefficiencies in residential and commercial buildings, which account for 70%–75% of electric use, according to DOE.

Codes and standards

“What we work on are strategies that will reduce overall energy consumption and improve building performance,” Paradis said. “That can include reducing natural gas use as well as electricity, diesel used for power generation, even water use. A big policy lever [for achieving reductions] is energy codes.”

For buildings, ASHRAE and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) serve as national model energy codes.

Operating as a subset of building codes, energy codes set minimum efficiency standards, so buildings use less energy and resources to achieve intended purposes while keeping occupants healthy and comfortable. Codes specify U-ratings for windows and doors, R-values for roof and wall insulation, air tightness for building envelopes, LED lighting, lighting controls, daylight harvesting and other measures.

Working with energy codes, building performance standards (BPS) can be used to set timelines and targets for reductions in energy and water use in existing buildings.

In 2020, St. Louis became the first municipality in the Midwest­—and one of four in the nation—to adopt BPS. As of December 2022, 14 local government entities have implemented BPS, according to the Institute of Market Transformation and the National BPS Coalition.

Katarina Michalova, program manager II for the City of St. Louis Office of Building Performance

“Other cities start with buildings of 25,000 square feet and more, but we wanted to start with our largest polluters,” said Katarina Michalova, program manager II for the City of St. Louis Office of Building Performance.

That group includes 910 buildings over 50,000 square feet located within St. Louis city limits. As of January 2023, 86% of those building owners had submitted energy use reports for the latest reported year (2021), and 35% were on track to meet BPS through the first five-year compliance cycle, Michalova said. Others had filed exemptions.

That’s on par with other local governments that have adopted BPS. This is notable because St. Louis’ buildings are older and account for 80% of the city’s carbon footprint—a percentage well above the national average of 40%.

Local utility companies Ameren Missouri and Spire Energy play important roles in providing proof of energy consumption, Michalova said. Building owners can even import utility information into forms provided by the city to analyze energy consumption.

St. Louis’ goal for its largest structures and entire city is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100% by 2050. For the local electrical industry, that effort is significant, according to Linda Little, assistant training director at IBEW 1 in St. Louis.

Linda Little, assistant training director at IBEW 1 in St. Louis

“It’s huge!” she said. “Even if cutting energy use involves a new HVAC system, a big part of that installation is electrical. Then you have lighting controls, wiring for alternative forms of energy, EV charging stations and other measures related to electrical use and generation.”

Little is one of nine members serving on St. Louis’ Building Energy Improvement Board. A respected authority in IECC and the National Electrical Code, she worked with the former St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and others who spearheaded adoption of BPS for the city.

While St. Louis’ reduction requirements are solid, the city is giving building owners leeway, Michalova said. “We’re not telling them how to do it, we’re just saying they have to find ways to do it.”

As inspiration, Michalova offers the example of the St. Louis City Hall, a 120-year-old structure surpassing the goal of the first BPS compliance cycle, due in part to not air conditioning its atrium. 

“It’s a little bit uncomfortable in summer, but everyone makes their way to the air conditioned offices anyway,” Michalova said.

The city also is careful not to apply a one-size fits all approach. Instead, it assigns categories and considers the purpose of each building. For example, unlike a warehouse, the Missouri History Museum, with its archives and historic relics, will not be expected to compromise on temperature and humidity controls.

While the city has a benchmarking system to advance gains, it also has partnered with the Building Energy Exchange—St. Louis (BE-Ex STL), whose purpose is to connect building owners with essential resources, including loans, grants, government incentive programs and rebate programs to help reduce costs for upgrades and ensure quality installations.

“They’re an essential partner for us,” Michalova said. “We want to help building owners come into compliance, but also to realize this is doable.”

BE-Ex STL is administered through the Missouri Gateway Green Building Council and receives foundational support from Washington University, Spire Energy, Ameren Missouri and others. The organization is currently developing an online form to enable building owners to provide information that allows third-party auditors to assess their building’s performance at a lower cost than on-site.

Malachi Rein, director of the Building Energy Exchange­—St. Louis

“Most people just want to go to work and do their jobs—they don’t want to think about the building they work in,” said Malachi Rein, director of BE-Ex STL. “But making these improvements does more than reduce greenhouse gases. It improves building function and provides a much healthier, more productive atmosphere. Our goal is to help building owners understand this process benefits them. There’s no better investment in our local economy than improving our buildings.”

BE-Ex STL’s work helps building owners pay more attention to factors influencing energy usage, Rein said. As an example, one building owner discovered they had left the ventilation on construction mode, which was causing exorbitant utility bills.

“Measuring progress and bringing accountability to building performance is also key to lowering energy consumption,” Rein said. “Most people do some form of energy accounting, but what we’re asking them to do is to track usages and do comparison benchmarking to measure against the national average. We’re trying to get them to look at energy use intensity kind of like miles per gallon.”

Much like the ventilation example, some gains don’t require structural changes and can include simply programming existing lighting, heat and air conditioning controls, sealing cracks around doors and windows, and lowering temperatures on water heaters.

Key to making effective upgrades is right-sizing capacity of appliances, lighting and HVAC systems, Rein said.

While insulating roofs, installing new HVAC systems and reinforcing building envelopes all require significant investment, Michalova and Rein said building owners can achieve significant reductions by installing LED lighting and controls, which are reimbursable.

Ameren Missouri offers rebates established through a state energy-efficiency program, and it enlists electrical contractors as trade allies to promote and install lighting upgrades and other controls related to refrigeration, HVAC and variable-frequency drives for powering motors.

Dena Schmid, director of energy solutions for Guarantee Electrical, St. Louis

One such trade ally is Guarantee Electrical Co., St. Louis, which also sponsors BE-EX STL’s efforts.

“We’re qualified to operate on both sides of the river,” said Dena Schmid, director of energy solutions for Guarantee. “We explain all the rebates available to customers and do all the paperwork. They end up with a more beautiful and improved property, a rebate check and lower utility bills. Many customers put those checks toward making additional improvements to bring down energy use even further.”

In the last 12 years, Guarantee has completed several lighting retrofit projects, including new LED lighting at Ballpark Village downtown and high-mast lighting at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. “We love doing this work, it’s a win-win for everybody because we’re helping our customers and reducing electric use,” Schmid said.

In the last two years, in St. Louis, Guarantee also has installed new lighting and controls in downtown office buildings and in multiple buildings owned by a university.

Though the BPS in St. Louis are just starting, Schmid said, “This could be huge! Maybe even overwhelming in terms of work. It’s probably good that St. Louis is taking this slowly and phasing it in.”

Energy stretch codes

Chris Burgess, buildings director for Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, Chicago

Another promising energy reduction strategy being implemented in the Midwest and elsewhere in the nation is promotion of adoption of stretch energy codes, according to Chris Burgess, buildings director for MEEA.

Stretch codes enable local governments to accelerate energy reduction efforts beyond state-mandated minimums by allowing local entities to adapt more advanced and stringent energy codes.

Nebraska is expecting to reduce energy consumption for certain size buildings by 30% by advancing three IECC code cycles, from 2009 to 2018, thanks to Burgess and MEEA’s many partners in the state. Those efforts include creation of complimentary advanced training programs to support workforce development and enhance the knowledge base of architects and engineers.

In 2021, Illinois passed legislation to allow local governments to enact stretch codes for commercial and residential properties. Thanks to MEEA, the city of Chicago is considering an energy-reduction strategy that could include implementation of a stretch code and BPS.

Regardless of how quickly or uniformly energy efficiency improves in the Midwest or elsewhere, “Climate change, unfortunately, is real. We must end our dependence on fossil fuels. There are no excuses,” Michalova said.

Images: / aapsky / Kegfyld / shutterstock / Man As Thep / Midwest energy efficiency alliance / Building Energy Exchange—St. Louis / City of St. Louis / Guarantee Electrical Co. / IBEW 1

About The Author

DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].

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