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Decarbonization Is A Marathon, Not A Sprint. What Are The First Steps On This Journey?


Cities across the U.S. are cracking down on commercial real estate carbon emissions and enacting regulations that will require building owners to make changes. The first step for many building owners is to educate themselves on the terms, processes and resources available to make this job easier. 

Decarbonization is simply preventing or limiting carbon gases from being released into the atmosphere,” said Julie Wolfington, energy and sustainability leader at Boland. “It’s a way of reframing things that many building owners are already doing, like saving energy in their buildings and implementing good refrigerant management practices.” 

Wolfington spoke with Bisnow and laid out steps that building owners who are starting on their decarbonization journey should take in 2024. 

Research Federal And Local Regulations

The first thing building owners need to do is research federal and local regulations to learn what the decarbonization requirements are in their area. Wolfington said that in D.C., building owners need to continue benchmarking their buildings and hitting D.C.’s Building Energy Performance Standard goals, but also be prepared for the newest challenge in 2024: having their data approved by a third-party verifier.

In 2022 in Maryland, building energy legislation was passed statewide, as well as countywide in Montgomery County. However, the regulations for each are different and are still being finalized. In addition to legislation, various cities in Maryland and Virginia, such as Rockville and Fairfax, have climate action plans that have goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also in 2022, the Federal Building Performance Standard was introduced for federal agencies' buildings.  

MEasure your emissions and create an action plan

Once building owners decide to decarbonize, the first step is to develop a greenhouse gas inventory, which quantifies the sources of carbon emissions for a business. This includes measuring building energy sources and usage, as well as doing an equipment refrigerant inventory. Then, they can create an action plan to achieve their building performance goals.

“The classic line, ‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure,’ is very applicable here,” Wolfington said. 

She said that while many owners are engaged in electricity-saving efforts and tracking their usage, decarbonization is about more than just that. Other sources of direct carbon emissions include boilers and other heating equipment that burn fossil fuels, as well as cooling equipment that uses high global warming potential refrigerants. Owners need to understand the sources of carbon emissions in their buildings, how to track them, then how to develop a plan to reduce them to meet their reduction goals.   

Be Prepared For The Challenges

One of the biggest challenges of decarbonization is understanding the different types of emissions, Wolfington said. Sources of carbon emissions are Scope 1, 2 and 3. 

Scope 1 emissions are kinds that a building owner has control over, such as owned assets that directly burn fossil fuels, like boilers in buildings and company vehicles. Scope 2 emissions come from indirect sources such as purchased electricity. Scope 3 encompasses everything else — carbon emissions that result from your business operations, ranging from building construction to employee travel. 

Wolfington said owners need to decide if they are just going to track Scope 1 and 2 or all three of them, then get to work determining those sources. 

The next challenge is to go fully electric so your building can run on cleaner energy sources that are becoming available.

“To reduce carbon emissions, you have to remove the major sources, which start with owned assets that burn fossil fuels,” Wolfington said. “This shouldn’t be a problem for owners of new-construction assets, since many new buildings are completely electric, but can be very challenging for owners of buildings with a significant fossil fuel-powered heating load.” 

Plan for the future 

Regulations are evolving, Wolfington said. One of the best ways to prepare for this is to invest in smart building technologies that allow owners more visibility and control.  

“The more energy-consuming devices we can see, the more we can manage them,” she said. “Also, this visibility allows owners to use technology to continuously commission them, as well as remotely service them from anywhere.”

She added that the HVAC industry as a whole is focused on ways to make heating more efficient so buildings use less energy to create or recover it. As the market evolves in response to electrification, or replacing equipment powered by fossil fuels with equipment that relies on electricity as their energy source, it will become easier and more affordable to decarbonize buildings. 

“We want to help you grab as much free heat as you can, and we have the equipment and design expertise that can help you do that,” Wolfington said. “Partners like Boland can help you bring all of the decarbonization resources together to ensure your timing, compliance and budgetary goals are met.” 

find the right partner

The road to decarbonization can be a long-term, complex process, which is why owners need to assess what expertise they already have and where they need to reach out for help, Wolfington said. 

“If you don't have in-house HVAC expertise, for example, choose a partner you trust that knows your buildings,” she said. “HVAC systems are a significant part of carbon emissions, and they're all different and complex. You need a partner that understands them and can help with long-range planning.” 

She also recommended working with a partner like Boland that understands all of the federal, state and local utility incentives, tax incentives and grants that are available to help shoulder the cost burden of decarbonization efforts. There is significant money available to help fund building retrofit projects, and companies like Boland can help building owners secure this money and boost their project return on investment.

This article was produced in collaboration between Boland and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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