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5 Steps to Decarbonize Facilities

Follow these tips to convince building owners to make the investment

By Dave Lubach, Executive Editor  

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has set 2050 as the year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent relative to 2005 levels.  

“The approach requires significantly increasing building energy efficiency, reducing onsite building emissions, transforming the grid edge at buildings, and reducing building life cycle emissions – all while prioritizing equity, affordability and resilience,” according to a DOE report. 

Since buildings are responsible for 40 percent of global emissions, institutional and commercial facilities play a vital role in achieving that goal, but there are many signs that the U.S. is behind in those efforts. An expert on existing buildings said at a conference a year ago that at the current rate, it will take 60 years to retrofit all current buildings to achieve decarbonization.   

“There are plenty of existing buildings with lots of work to be done on improving their basic energy efficiency,” says Alexi Miller, the director of building innovation at New Buildings Institute. 

One of the challenges for facility managers is selling leadership on the benefits of decarbonization of buildings. Trying to convince building owners to invest in the systems and equipment to decarbonize is one of the first steps in the process. As many managers learn, some building owners are easier to convince than others. 

“One argument that (managers) are going to have is with the CFOs, so they have to be ready,” says Doug Davenport, the founder and executive director of Prospect Silicon Valley, a cleantech accelerator company that helps companies decarbonize. “You’re not going to tell a financially constrained numbers-driven leader, ‘Don’t worry about the cost. This is the right thing to do.’ You’re going to have to bring that whole ethos, logos, pathos, the framework for arguing. Bring the facts and do that in a way that speaks to that aspect.” 

For managers and building owners on the path to decarbonize their buildings, here are five steps to begin the process, according to Miller. 

1. Build the team, get buy-in, and agree on goals 

To get the most out of a decarbonization plan, a department needs the support of a team comprised from different areas of the facilities sphere. 

“Most successful low-carbon building projects, whether new construction or existing building upgrades, start from the same place: A committed team. This group should include the owner, manager, facility operator and the appropriate designers or consultants,” Miller says. “Together, this team will define the goals and make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound). 

Some examples of goal setting that Miller suggests are to reduce energy use intensity (EUI) to 25 kBTu/sf/yr  by 2030; zero-out greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from natural gas and other fuels by 2035; or achieve full carbon neutrality. 

Once a team is established, setting financial parameters is essential.  

“The financial strategy has to be included with the engineering strategy,” Davenport says. “Owners tend to be very good at this, and developers tend to be very good at this because they have interesting ways to do it. But the people that know the buildings, those that really understand the systems, have to bring a financial picture to these decisions.” 

2. Determine where the emissions are coming from and benchmark the building.  

Finding the top contributors to the facility’s carbon emissions for energy waste and addressing them should be a top priority in a decarbonization plan. 

“Common culprits include space heating, water heating, mechanical cooling and servers and informational technology (IT),” Miller says. “We recommend gathering energy bills from the last three years. Don’t have a paper copy? No worries. You can log into your utility account, which should give you a detailed account of your bills.” 

After managers have compiled energy use records and other data, Miller suggests using the free Energy Star portfolio manager tool to help organize and benchmark data. 

Related Content: What Steps Should Facility Managers Take to Decarbonize? 

“The tool can convert kilowatt-hours and therms into GHG emissions and allows you to select regional GHG factors for electricity, Miller says.  

Once managers have a good grasp of the data, they can then focus on the facility components that make the most sense to address. 

“If you’re going to start decarbonizing buildings, we’re usually not just taking about one building, we’re talking about a portfolio,” Davenport says. “It could be in a lot of different places, subject to a lot of different requirements. So, if you’re talking about just that first level of HVAC equipment or water heating equipment, or if you’re moving into an electric platform, most owners don’t have a solid grasp of what they own at that level. An inventory of the buildings that matter most in that picture is going to be really important.” 

3. Align key decarbonization opportunities with capital improvement cycles. 

Miller advises managers and building owners to consider the decarbonization process a multi-year journey “where every step leads to the end goal.” 

“Create a roadmap that aligns specific decarbonization opportunities with the building’s capital plan,” Miller says. “First, look at inventory building equipment, such as furnaces, boilers, water heaters, chillers and lighting systems. Next, identify when equipment will reach its operational end of life. This proactive approach will help ensure you are not forced into like-for-like replacements when equipment fails.” 

While many managers are eager to go all-in with critical capital-improvement projects, some need to be reminded that facilities can’t go through a decarbonization process overnight. 

“As much as a facility manager looks at this as a serious shift in operation, it’s also going to take time,” Davenport says. “You don’t decarbonize buildings all at once unless somehow you have unlimited cash. You must see this as an investment in project strategy over time.  

“Most likely, FMs or the building owner is going to have to choose – am I going to invest in the HVAC side? The water? Are we going to focus on these three buildings now or those four buildings? There’s most likely a certain amount of money you’ve got at your disposal for those investments, and you’re going to have to make choices.” 

4. Pick the low-hanging fruit and don’t forget efficiency vegetables. 

High-profile projects may garner tons of attention from the C-suite and beyond, but managers should remember to not overlook obvious energy-saving opportunities. 

“Seize opportunities to trim energy usage and decarbonize,” Miller says. He offers three concepts to keep in mind. 

  • Cost efficiency. “Identify opportunities where efficiency investments can lower overall costs. For example, improving insulation and airtightness can allow you to downsize your HVAC equipment.” 
  • Holistic approach. Ensure decarbonization investments are part of a strategic plan. Consider how efficiency investments contribute to other company goals. For example, shell upgrades like insulation or windows usually dramatically improve comfort for building occupants. 
  • Resilience and future-proofing. Those same shell upgrades also improve passive survivability – the ability of the building to remain habitable when the power is out. Similarly, investments in solar and storage systems not only cut energy costs and emissions, but they also provide resilience during emergencies and future-proof against rising utility costs, especially demand chargers and time-of-use rates. 

When considering what projects to tackle, it’s important that managers not only look for easy opportunities that deliver energy savings, but also benefit the bottom line. That could mean searching out government incentives for projects.  

“Look at the useful life of certain systems versus the amount of money you're going to be spending, or whether a particular incentive is truly valuable to you and put you on a path to focusing on those things that are going to give you the best ROI,” Davenport says. “Often with these systems, depending on where somebody is in the country, there may or may not be incentive money or tax incentives, or the Inflation Reduction Act. You can evaluate these things, but simply because there is an incentive available it doesn’t mean that if you have a system that still has 10 years of useful life, you need to evaluate whether replacing that system now is a smart move.” 

5. Meet frequently to review progress toward goals. 

Many things can throw managers off a larger plan for building upgrades, such as budget issues, supply chain challenges and staffing shortages to name a few. With so many potential hurdles, it’s important that managers keep all concerned parties updated on the decarbonization process. 

“It’s important to continually evaluate and adjust your goals as you make progress along your decarbonization journey,” says Miller, who suggests: 

  • Integrating decarbonization efforts into the capital plan and building management. 
  • Contacting the local utility about available incentives. 
  • Staying updated on local government energy codes, building performance standards and policies. 
  • Letting organizational leaders and the community know of your accomplishments. 

“Sharing your achievements can inspire others to decarbonize their buildings to combat climate change,” Miller says. 

Dave Lubach is executive editor of the facilities market. He has more than eight years of experience writing about facility management and maintenance issues.  

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  posted on 3/6/2024   Article Use Policy

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