Boston Must Lead By Example — 2019 Climate Action Plan Update

The City of Boston recently published its Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2019 Update, which lays out a five-year decarbonization roadmap aligned with the ultimate goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.  BCAN volunteers have taken a close look at the part of the CAP that relates to reducing carbon emissions from existing buildings, since this sector accounts for more than half of Boston’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the key ideas outlined in the CAP is that of carbon emissions performance standards,  mandatory carbon emissions targets by building type that decrease over time. The emissions standards would be established by amending the City’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), which currently applies to buildings of 35,000 or more square feet. The process of developing these standards will begin in 2020, and the City expects to propose an amendment to BERDO in 2021. 

Establishing building performance standards is an important step forward toward carbon neutrality.  Low-carbon buildings save money and bring better health to occupants. Setting standards would give property owners clear mandates to guide their maintenance schedules and would show that the City is taking climate change seriously.

We applaud the City for recognizing that establishing performance standards is a crucial element of what must get done in the next 5 years if we are to meet our 2050 goal. We value the public process that must precede putting more teeth into BERDO, but given that we are in a climate emergency, we are concerned that the City’s timeline for retrofitting existing municipal buildings seems very slow.

According to the CAP, the City intends to reduce annual emissions from municipal buildings by a mere one percent in 2019, plus an unspecified “additional emissions reductions” in 2020 and beyond.  Municipal building upgrades are not dependent upon a public process, and an explicit and ambitious timeline for deep energy retrofits of every City-owned building must be made public in 2020. The goal for carbon neutrality in City-owned buildings should be set much sooner than for private buildings.

We are also concerned that there is no plan to address existing buildings under 35,000 square feet. In the near-term, the threshold for BERDO should be lowered.  Also, two promising ideas that would benefit many residents should be pursued: rental energy efficiency requirements and energy scorecards that must be made public when a property is rented or sold.  Scorecards would empower buyers and renters and create a market-based incentive for owners and landlords to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Both of these ideas should be researched, and if possible established, within this current 5-year plan.

Lastly, we are concerned that the CAP does not address enforcement penalties for non-compliance with BERDO.  At present a number of building owners regulated by BERDO have not even complied with the existing mandate to make public their energy use data. Given Boston’s extreme vulnerability to flooding and heat waves, and the consequences of climate change for those worldwide who have contributed the least to the climate emergency, we must use sticks as well as carrots to push Boston’s building owners to decarbonize as quickly as possible.

Read more about our campaign to strengthen and expand Boston’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO) at https://bostoncan.org/green-buildings/.

You can find Boston’s website about BERDO at https://www.boston.gov/departments/environment/building-energy-reporting-and-disclosure-ordinance.

You can read more about Boston’s Climate Action Plan at https://www.boston.gov/departments/environment/boston-climate-action#climate-action-plan.

San Jose Bans Gas Pipelines for New Buildings by 2020

On September 18, San Jose, CA became the largest US city to ban construction of new gas pipelines. All new buildings will have to be electric starting January of 2020 (in less than 4 months!). With its aggressive move, the City of San Jose is displaying the sense of urgency experts and the public alike are calling for in fighting the climate crisis. The ban is remarkable not only because of the size of San Jose (it’s the 10th largest city in the US, with over 1 million inhabitants), but also because of the very short notice developers received. It is as if the city was telling the construction industry: “Get your act together. The technology is there and you can do this.” 

With its ban on new gas pipelines, San Jose cuts through two of the bigger obstacles to addressing the climate crisis adequately: (1) utilities that not only delay the transition to clean energy but plan to expand the use of fossil fuels and (2) parts of the construction industry that continue to do business as usual and fail to recognize their role and responsibility in fighting climate change. 

From the standpoint of developers, it may be a bit of a scramble to revise plans at such short notice, although alternative technologies such as electric heat pumps are available. However, from the standpoint of investors or building owners it should be a no-brainer, since US cities with climate goals are also beginning to mandate energy retrofits to existing buildings. Why pay for a gas heating system now if I will be required to replace it soon with electric heat? 

From the standpoint of a city, any new gas-heated building makes it harder to meet that city’s carbon reduction goals. But this is not the only problem to consider:  

  1. The generation of natural gas through fracking results in methane emissions which have been vastly underestimated in the past. While methane emissions at a production site are not counted towards a city’s carbon inventory, they nevertheless contribute to heating up the planet. 
  2. Fracking also generates considerable amounts of soil, water, and air pollution in addition to the methane release. 
  3. Gas leaks from aging pipeline infrastructures within cities result in additional methane emissions. A July 2019 study shows that for six big east coast cities, including Boston, methane emissions are twice as high as recent EPA estimates suggested. They contribute to global warming, create health problems, kill trees, and jeopardize safety.
  4. Some gas companies don’t cooperate when asked to fix their gas leaks (see National Grid vs. City of Boston
  5. An aging pipeline infrastructure can pose a massive, immediate safety risk, as seen from the recent incidents in the Merrimack Valley

Given the current building boom in Boston, the City needs to look into serious measures to stop the expansion of gas infrastructure, and do so quickly. San Jose has set an example of one way to accomplish this.  Locally BCAN is part of a group of organizations calling on the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) to revise Article 37, Boston’s Green Building Code, to enact a similar ban on gas hook-ups for new construction. The Boston node of 350-MA is among the leaders of that no-gas-in-new-construction campaign.

Tough Nut to Crack: Reducing Emissions from Boston’s Existing Buildings

After a thorough process of research and deliberation, BostonCAN is excited to announce the focus of our next campaign: winning policy change to accelerate the conversion of Boston’s existing 86,000 buildings to clean energy for heat, cooling, lights, and all their energy needs.

Powering our homes and businesses with fossil fuels accounts for about 70% of our collective greenhouse gas emissions. The Carbon Free Boston report calls for “deep energy retrofits” within 30 years of all existing buildings in the city: installing deeper insulation in walls and roofs with heating and cooling supplied by highly efficient electrical heat pumps. As our grid becomes steadily greener, these heat pump systems will be responsible for fewer and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Our top near-term goal is to strengthen the energy efficiency of  Boston’s largest buildings. Less than 3% of Boston’s buildings account for more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. These largest buildings are already regulated by Boston’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), which covers all buildings of 35,000 square feet and larger. Adding stronger enforcement mechanisms to BERDO will lead property owners to transition more quickly to cleaner energy. More retrofits will also lead to more jobs for Boston residents, as well as cleaner air, soil and water as we reduce our need to transport and combust fossil fuels.

Retrofitting existing buildings is one of the four top priorities that Boston has chosen for the update of its Climate Action Plan. Carbon Free Boston emphasized the importance of reducing carbon use in existing buildings, especially since “85 percent of projected building square footage in Boston in 2050 exists today.”

The goal is challenging. Many Boston buildings face barriers to even basic levels of insulation, let alone the deep energy retrofits they will need. Judy Kolligian, a BostonCAN member and landlord, has already upgraded heating systems for her own and her tenants’ apartments. “I’ve been improving my building as quickly as I learn how to, but my home has asbestos siding and my tenants’ has asphalt siding. I need the City and Mass Save to figure out more cost-effective ways to insulate buildings like these.”

BsotonCAN invites you to join our “Green Buildings, Not Greenhouse Gases” campaign, working with allies and city leaders to find urgent, equitable, and affordable solutions for retrofitting all buildings, from triple-deckers like Judy’s to the biggest buildings in the city.

Castle_Square_2

Pictured above is the deep energy retrofit in process in 2012, at Castle Square Apartments in Boston.

CCE Working Group Explores Green Energy Sourcing Alternatives

BostonCAN is a member of the Municipal Aggregation Working Group that the City’s Environment Department has formed to help ensure that Boston’s Community Choice Energy (CCE) program reflects community priorities. (Note: Municipal aggregation is the legal term for CCE.) Working group members represent City departments and other stakeholder organizations. Monthly meetings began last December and have served to educate the group about different aspects of aggregation design. The February 28 meeting addressed alternative ways that a program can acquire green energy. Guest speakers Megan Shaw from the Cambridge Energy Alliance and Ann Berwick from the City of Newton each described the option that her municipality chose.

Newton’s program goes live this month with a 22-month contract. The program gets green energy by purchasing Class I RECs. A REC (Renewable Energy Certificate) is earned by a renewable energy producer (for example, a solar or wind farm) for each 1,000 kilowatt hours that it generates. RECs are sold on an open market. When people (including aggregations) buy RECs, they help to repay up-front costs for existing renewable projects and to encourage investment in new ones. Class I RECs are for energy produced in New England, New York, or parts of Canada, where they help to green our regional grid and to create local jobs. Newton’s default offering is 60% green (46% more than the current state requirement, or RPS, of 14%). Newton customers may also opt up to 100% green or down to the RPS level.

Cambridge’s second CCE contract started last November. The previous 18-month contract relied on RECs, prioritizing new-vintage solar RECs (SRECs) in order to incentivize local solar development. When the incentive fell short of its goal, Cambridge designed its current, 24-month contract with an “operational adder” (customer surcharge) that will be used to finance a new, City-owned solar project. Cambridge’s program has an opt-up to 100%; these customers pay for Class I RECs in addition to the adder. The program is currently collecting more money than it can use, and the City is considering different options, such as adding battery storage.

Because recent market prices for electricity have been low, Newton and Cambridge now offer their customers both greener energy and lower prices compared to Eversource. However, prices fluctuate, and Berwick said that Newton was careful never to promise its customers cost savings. Alternative ways to set prices for an aggregation will be the topic of the next working group meeting.

In later meetings, the working group will set priorities for Boston’s CCE program and discuss what design alternatives support those priorities best. To help members prepare, the City provided the following questions about green energy sourcing alternatives:

  • Do we want to use RECS, direct investment in new renewables, or some combination of both?
  • If RECs, do we want to buy a fixed percentage above RPS or a varying percentage based on energy prices? In either case, what’s our target amount of renewables?
  • What types of RECs and/or renewable projects do we want to prioritize?
  • How might we want to change the aggregation over time and in response to new circumstances?
  • Do we want opt-up or opt-down options, and if so, what should these entail?

What do you think? BostonCAN represents its members at the working group, and we need to hear from you to do a good job. Send us a message at BostonClimateAction@gmail.com or at Facebook.com/BostonCAN with your opinions and questions.

Check out the City’s new CCE website for the latest progress indicators.

progress graphic

 

Learning from Cambridge’s Net Zero plan

This Tuesday’s release of the Carbon Free Boston (CFB) report begins a political process for us to make hard choices to accomplish the necessary transition away from the fossil fuels devastating our global climate. The report will outline options that will be debated by stakeholders, incorporated into the City’s 2019 Climate Action Plan, and eventually codified in the ordinances and other policy instruments needed to implement its goals.

To give some context for the CFB report, this blog summarizes the City of Cambridge’s 2015 Getting to Net Zero report. Cambridge’s Net Zero plan exclusively targets energy use in  buildings ‒‒ both the amount of energy used and its source. (Emissions from transportation are addressed in other City of Cambridge documents.)

Cambridge’s plan makes some basic distinctions to guide its energy policy.  Energy reduction strategies for new construction are distinguished from those for existing buildings. Likewise, increasing renewable energy generation within city limits is distinguished from using renewable sources outside the city. In addition, it proposes a local offset mechanism for buildings that do not achieve net zero emissions through efficiency, on-site renewable sources, and a greener grid.

Energy efficiency in new construction is the easiest and least expensive route to net zero.  To take advantage of this streamlined approach, Cambridge set targets ranging from 2020 for municipal buildings to 2030 for labs, such as those in Cambridge’s well-known biotech industry.

cambridge net zero
Timeline for net zero new construction by sector, from Getting to Net Zero, City of Cambridge.

Reducing energy use in existing buildings is more complex and Cambridge’s plan lacks a comprehensive approach. The patchwork of policies proposed include retrofit pilot projects, stronger requirements for large building owners to report energy data and plans for improvements, and eventually a mandate to make energy efficiency upgrades at time of sale.

In tandem with buildings being made increasingly energy efficient, Cambridge expects to increase the generation of renewable or low-carbon electricity, heating, and cooling within the City’s boundaries. The primary sources discussed in Getting to Net Zero include solar, harvesting waste heat from large industrial and commercial buildings, and expanding district energy.  Cambridge will also lobby state government for raising the Renewable Portfolio Standard, thereby reducing the percentage of nonrenewable fuels used to generate the electricity throughout the state’s grid.

For cases where a building’s implementable efficiency measures and renewable sources do not achieve net zero, Cambridge has proposed a local “offset” fund.  In contrast to offsets that protect global carbon sinks such as tropical rain forests, this locally-managed but independently operated carbon fund would be used to support Cambridge-based greenhouse gas reduction and renewable/low-carbon energy projects. No timeline for this fund is included in the report.  This is an implicit acknowledgement that such a fund would require extensive engagement from all sectors of the real estate industry and other drivers of investment in Cambridge’s built environment.

The latest update on Cambridge’s plan can be found at https://www.cambridgema.gov/CDD/Projects/Climate/~/media/1CA864BB4D9E421E858D647D36C3FF76.ashx.

 

Boston’s Latest Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data

As the City of Boston begins the implementation of Community Choice Energy and prepares to release the Carbon Free Boston report, BCAN members are debating what we might do next to help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Boston. To make the most impactful choices, we need to know which sources contribute the most to GHG emissions and how that distribution has been changing over time.

The following data and graphs are based on the City of Boston’s Community Greenhouse Gas Emissions dataset and the related report, “City of Boston Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory 2005–2016.”  The City tracks emissions in the following categories: large, commercial buildings (which includes residential buildings with 10 or more units); residential buildings; transportation; waste; and fugitive gas (from all sectors). As shown in Figure 1, the largest contributor to GHG emissions is the commercial buildings sector, followed by transportation, then residential buildings. Waste water and fugitive gases (gas leaking from pipelines in the city) contribute a negligible amount, according to the metrics used by City staff.

Between 2005 and 2016, the most progress in GHG reduction was made in the commercial buildings sector, followed by small residential buildings. The transportation sector barely managed to reduce emissions.

FIGURE 1

chart

In Figure 2, the contribution of each of the three largest sectors is further dissected into its various components (electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, and steam for buildings; vehicle fuel (for vehicles other than the municipal fleet), municipal fleet, and MBTA for transportation).

FIGURE 2

GHG Emissions in 2005 and 2016 for the Different Sectors
Note: Total emissions from the five categories (indicated above with capital letters) are broken down into their components by fuel source. Thus, the components of each category add up to the totals of the category.

Between 2005 and 2016, most of the GHG reduction from commercial buildings came from electricity, while emissions from natural gas increased slightly. Fuel oil and steam showed large proportional declines, but their contribution to overall emissions is relatively small. In small residential buildings, electricity and fuel oil made the highest contributions to the reduction. Over 90% of the emissions in the transportation sector come from vehicle fuel.

Some of the factors driving GHG emissions down are as follows:

  • Switching power plants from coal (and oil) to gas
  • Increasing the proportion of clean energy (solar, wind, hydro) in the electricity mix
  • Conversion of oil heat to gas heat
  • Better insulation of buildings
  • Saving electricity due to efficient appliances and lighting
  • Better fuel efficiency of cars in general and increased proportion of hybrids and electric vehicles

It should be pointed out that GHG emissions reductions from replacing coal and oil with natural gas will reach a plateau. According the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas emits 25% less CO2 than heating oil and 50% less CO2 than coal for the same amount of energy produced (although these calculations don’t take into account the leaking of methane during fracking and from pipelines, as pointed out by the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others). However, natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits GHG.  

There are also some factors that tend to drive GHG emissions up:

  • Increase in population, requiring more residential buildings
  • Increase in economic output/GDP, requiring more commercial buildings
  • Increase in traffic (vehicle miles traveled)

These data and considerations would suggest that some of the most urgent and effective measures to bring down GHG emissions would be greening the electrical grid at a much faster pace (which is the goal of BCAN’s CCE campaign), replacing natural gas as a heating source with electrical heat pumps, better insulating old and new buildings, replacing gasoline as vehicle fuel (more electric vehicles), and reducing the miles traveled in cars by getting more people to use public transportation, bike, and walk.

Note: The data used to generate the graphs (plus more graphs and analysis) can all be found at this link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1SWi9P4fyUvFZXOXSwqyFX5VvH-bS3afg_R-DOpmr2Gg/edit?usp=drivesdk

 

Carbon Free Boston – Buildings

Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy plans to release its Carbon Free Boston (CFB) report later this year, outlining a menu of policy options that the City of Boston might adopt to reach its 2050 goal of carbon neutralityWritten at the behest of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, the report will form the basis of discussion of measures to incorporate into the next update of Boston’s Climate Action Plan.

Last June, CFB researchers released a preliminary report listing a wide range of options under consideration in the areas of energy, buildings, transportation, and waste. To better understand and respond to the release of the Carbon Free Boston plan, BCAN has generated a series of introductions to the key elements of the plan. We have summarized the sections about energy and transportation in previous blog posts (energy on October 28 and transportation on December 8). Here we summarize our recent discussion on the buildings sector.

Carbon Free Boston (CFB) has determined that buildings — commercial and residential combined —  are Boston’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).  The age of our buildings, the lack of good insulation, and their often inefficient heating systems mean that we need to focus on existing buildings, not just try to build new super-efficient ones. And the most effective way to cut emissions from existing buildings is to do deep energy retrofits, according to CFB’s early research findings. Deep retrofits could include different steps such as:

  • Sealing the building “skin” completely so it doesn’t let heat or cold radiate in and out.
  • Installing super insulation.
  • Making buildings more resilient in the face of extreme weather.

Carbon Free Boston’s preliminary findings say deep retrofits would cut building energy use and emissions in half. These are a good beginning to get us to Net Zero Carbon or carbon-free buildings by 2050, Boston’s goal.

How do we get building owners to do deep retrofits, which are very expensive? CFB is looking at these approaches:

   – Requiring deep retrofits when a building changes hands or is sold.

   – Requiring smaller increases in building efficiency every five years.

A good way to reach these goals is to use Passive House principles in our retrofits and all new construction as well. Passive House techniques can be applied to any building type including skyscrapers, not just single-family homes. A passive building: 

  • Uses continuous insulation throughout its entire envelope without any thermal bridging. That means no piece of the building extends all the way from the inside to the outside, where it could conduct heat or cold.
  • Employs double or triple-paned windows and manages solar gain so the sun’s energy heats the building in the winter and not in the summer.
  • Makes the building envelope completely airtight, preventing infiltration of outside air and loss of conditioned air.
  • Uses some form of balanced heat- and moisture-recovery ventilation so this fully-sealed building doesn’t get moldy.

Ideally, Passive House construction is so efficient that no active heating system is required to maintain a comfortable temperature.  Even in less than ideal conditions, this type of building allows for the replacement of large fossil fuel heating systems with small electric ones so they can run on renewable power.

Passive House type buildings are also more resilient in extreme weather (if the power goes out they can maintain comfortable temperatures for days instead of hours) and more valuable because they’re better to work and live in. But that could mean landlords charge higher rents for them, which creates equity issues.

CFB’s early research also finds that we must start electrifying our heating and cooling systems. If we moved to all-electric systems, we would be cutting energy use and emissions, while pushing the energy industry to build 100% renewable sources. Water heating and cooking are two other common uses of gas that will have to be replaced with electric options. Especially in kitchens with inexpensive or poorly ventilated gas stoves, “fracked” methane leaks into the air we breathe every day, polluting us with toxic gases.

Finally, some other strategies that CFB is looking at are:

  • Saying “no new gas burners can be sold after x date.”
  • Requiring solar panels on all new buildings’ roofs.
  • Using cool roofs and cool pavements (painting them white to reflect the sun back off rather than absorb the heat).
  • Cutting the electricity our buildings use at peak demand times.

We will continue to look at and question these ideas as we move forward in our work.  Join us!

passive house principles
Passive House principles include an uninterrupted thermal barrier around the living space, roof overhangs to control the seasonal change in the sun’s position, and heat recovery ventilation.  This illustration also includes a ground-source heat exchanger. (Image courtesy of the Passive House Institute US)