What Steps Should Facility Managers Take to Decarbonize?

Facility managers should move beyond the buzzwords to take decisive and effective action to decarbonize their buildings. Here’s how to get started.

By Greg Zimmerman, senior contributing editor  

The numbers don’t lie: According to numerous sources, buildings are responsible for 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and of those, building operations are responsible for 27 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That means that, as the planet works to decarbonize in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, facility managers have a huge role to play in reducing carbon emissions in their buildings.  

But how? What are the most cost-effective and impactful strategies facility managers should deploy to decarbonize their buildings? Decarbonization initiatives can touch just about every aspect of facility operations, from supply chain and product procurement to building electrification and onsite renewable energy.  

Building electrification has taken on enormous importance and is quickly gaining momentum as technology and expertise are improving. Facility strategies like heat pumps, in some facilities, are replacing traditional fossil fuel-using HVAC equipment, dramatically reducing carbon emissions from that building – and saving energy and cost as well.  

Though they’re being challenged in courts, many states and local governments are passing laws limiting or banning new natural gas hookups in new facilities (both residential and some commercial). The goals for these strategies are twofold: The first is safety and health – using natural gas in buildings has been shown to increase and exasperate incidents of asthma and other respiratory injuries. Further, despite increased safety protocols and precautions, natural gas explosions are still a threat, as happened recently in Denver and Oak Park, Illinois. But the second reason for banning new gas hooks-ups is decarbonization. Using all-electric appliances and heating and cooling in facilities is a way to switch out equipment that uses fossil fuels with equipment that doesn’t. As the amount of alternative energy 

Reducing embodied energy – and therefore reducing carbon emissions up and down the supply chain – has also been a major push in the buildings industry both in the private sector and in from code-writing bodies and state laws. California recently became the first state to require reductions in embodied energy via an update to its building code, a change that takes effect July 1, 2024. As environmental product declarations (EPDs) and life-cycle assessments on building products have become more common, it’s easier now for facility managers to make more informed decisions about how much carbon goes into the manufacture and transportation of the building products they choose for their buildings.  

We recently spoke with decarbonization expert Doug Davenport, CEO, founder, and executive director of Prospect Silicon Valley, a cleantech accelerator company that helps organizations decarbonize. Davenport discussed the importance of electrification, the economic benefits of decarbonization, and how to get started. Here’s the conversation:  

FacilitiesNet: Electrification of commercial buildings is becoming a crucial strategy for facility managers. What would you recommend as some first-step best practices toward electrification if facility managers are just getting started with this decarbonization strategy?  

Doug Davenport: Strategy is the operative word – electrifying buildings is not simply replacement of natural gas-fired water and space heating or natural gas cooking with electric-powered substitutes. There’s a need to look at two angles: the net change in electrical demand caused by the replacement, and the ROI of the systems and remedies being applied. Shifting building systems from natural gas to electricity can be a challenge due to capacity constraints, which may bring on the need for electrical upgrades and/or adding on-site solar & storage. To fully understand the economics of a decarbonization effort, facility managers should consider systems inventory when planning their decarbonization strategy in two distinct ways:  

A comprehensive inventory of the natural-gas-fired systems in their buildings, plus other major systems, such as lighting. This process can yield helpful insights into opportunities to gain economies of scale in replacement and efficiency measures. 

View the inventory as a set of major projects to compare the ROI and carbon reductions of one set of replacements against another. Incentives can be attractive when available, but many other factors could influence priorities. 

What’s important is to gain a sense of options available across a portfolio, and a sense of incremental costs and returns that can work within the financial realities you’re working with. It’s also an opportunity to define what performance advantages you might gain in the process, and consider how your systems can evolve to meet future needs. A clear picture of your systems and replacement outlay provide a crucial reference when seeking engineering counsel on these projects. 

FacilitiesNet: What are the economic benefits facility managers can realize through electrification specifically, but decarbonization generally? 

Davenport: Given that most electrification efforts will replace 20-plus-year-old inefficient gas systems with modern, efficient systems that are electric, there’s often a financial benefit after the first costs. Although there’s no hard and fast rule, heat pump replacements of gas-fired furnaces may cost around 20 percent more up front. However, with a higher Coefficient of Performance (2 to 3 vs. 1 for gas furnaces), the cost of electricity is significantly less over the lifetime of the unit, thus making the heat pump a viable choice. As these systems evolve, we can anticipate efficiencies both in energy and in O&M. Also, this is an important thing to consider beyond just energy savings! There’s also the fact that under electrification, the whole building is consuming the same form of energy, making it more controllable. 

FacilitiesNet: How does onsite renewable energy factor into decarbonization strategies? Traditionally, onsite renewables had been cost-prohibitive or with a long ROI. Is that changing? 

Davenport: The cost of renewables has been dropping consistently over the past 10 years. Onsite renewables are a critical consideration for any decarbonization strategy as we look at the future cost of peak energy, accommodating more demand, and preserving critical loads during likely grid events.   

Greg Zimmerman is senior contributor editor for the facility group, which including FacilitiesNet.com and Building Operating Management magazine. He has more than 19 years’ experience writing about facility issues. 

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  posted on 9/21/2023   Article Use Policy

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