by Yetsuh Frank, Managing Director, Strategy & Programs Building Energy Exchange
Originally published in Building Energy Exchange Quarterly Report (Q4 2020)

One of the less remarked on but key takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the importance of general health in times of crisis. The primary focus during the pandemic, for understandable reasons, has been on immediate actions. How do we limit transmission of the virus? How do we treat those who contract it?  But moving forward we must also focus on the general health of everyone in our communities. Limiting the transmission of any virus is important, of course, but it is also important to ensure those that do get it are as resilient as possible.

Consider that a Johns Hopkins and Fair Health study of COVID deaths found that more than 80% had at least one pre-existing comorbidity (such as lung cancer, chronic kidney or heart disease, etc). A similar New York State study found this figure to be 90%.  In each study, as the number of a patient’s comorbidities increased, so did their chance of dying from COVID-19. It is clear that even in the midst of an acute health crisis, preventative medicine is every bit as important as immediate action.

All of which has got me thinking about the parallels in our industry and the need for preventative efficiency within our building stock.

Electrifying all the systems in all of our buildings is a monumental task.  Like any project of this scale, we need to break it down into component parts and work our way through them over time because it would be impossible to do it all at once. There’s not enough money, not enough tradespeople, and not enough technical expertise on hand to simply switch everything over in a couple of years. So we need to start now, and to the extent feasible we should make our buildings as efficient as possible before we introduce electricity-based heating and hot water systems. This is preventative efficiency–retrofitting our buildings so they demand less energy, so we need less electricity to satisfy that demand when we make the switch from fossil fuels.

The COVID-19 pandemic made clear that the health of our neighbors is critical to our own well being. The same is true of electrifying buildings, in the sense that we must all do our part reducing demand through efficiency or there won’t be enough electricity to go around. Many in the real estate sector wonder if they should just wait till the last possible moment to electrify their legacy systems, but doing so places you squarely in the bottleneck and there is no guarantee you’ll squeeze through it unscathed. The risk involved in waiting is considerable. If you are subject to Local Law 97 carbon emissions limits, you risk significant financial penalties. If you plan on purchasing renewable energy credits to offset your emissions, there is no guarantee they will be available or affordable. Finally, if you hope to market yourself as a leader in any real estate sector, you’ll be hard pressed to do so if you rely on dirty fossil fuels to drive your systems.

To compliment local efforts already underway, the Biden administration climate action plan includes a goal to halve emissions from buildings by 2035 through an aggressive program to upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years.

Despite the lessons in solidarity we should take away from the global pandemic, it is probably naive to expect everyone to simply do the right thing. But goodwill is not the only pressure the real estate sector will be feeling in the years to come. New buildings will be required to meet both stringent, performance-based energy codes, as well carbon emissions limits. Existing buildings will be competing with them in the marketplace; in a world that is streaming high-res audio, you don’t want to be the one still selling 8-track tapes. Fortunately, we finally have Federal leadership that is determined to reduce the costs of converting our building stock to meet the needs of this century. Energy efficiency is already the most cost effective means of reducing carbon emissions across New York State. To compliment local efforts already underway, the Biden administration climate action plan includes a goal to halve emissions from buildings by 2035 through an aggressive program to upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over 4 years. Central to this plan are funds to spur the deployment of retrofit technologies, new and existing.

Public health and the built environment have another thing in common: change typically happens slowly. As a result, it can often feel like the status quo has always been thus–that nothing ever changes. But incremental change has always been the rule in buildings, where modifications are capital intensive and require significant coordination. This pace of change is why we need as many buildings as possible to advance retrofits now. Over the previous year we have learned that it is useless for only one of us to wear a mask. To mitigate the most dire impacts of climate change, individual building owners can’t go it alone. We are all in this together and need to act accordingly, for selfish as well as altruistic reasons.

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