Strategic Decarb 101

Seven Misconceptions About Decarbonization


Insights from Empire Building Challenge

It is clear today that the use of fossil fuel-fired equipment in buildings has a limited future due to technological advancements, policy changes, ESG requirements, and other externalities. As asset managers, sustainability managers, and their consultants pursue decarbonization plans, misconceptions about decarbonization arise that can delay action and progress. Below is a list of the misconceptions encountered by NYSERDA’s Empire Building Challenge team and our recommended approaches that debunk these inaccuracies. 

Simple Payback Measures

Instead of looking for tangential ways to create value, energy efficiency and decarbonization projects repeatedly fall into the trap of using energy savings (and some may now include carbon emissions fines savings) to justify investments in energy conservation measures. Often, this linear thinking approach yields unattractive investment economics. Alternatively, conduct scenarios analyses including net present value calculations: The lowest net present cost or negative net present value (NPV) over the decarbonization period will help inform the prioritization and selection of energy conservation measures. Demonstrating the return on investment (ROI) and/or internal rate of return (IRR) on the incremental cost of action over a do-nothing baseline will help persuade real estate owners to prioritize these projects. Rather than a simple payback analysis that looks only at the decarbonization path, the analysis should focus on comparing a decarbonization path with a “business-as-usual” path. This approach helps isolate the incremental cost of decarbonization over a business-as-usual approach. 

This type of analysis requires completing a Strategic Decarbonization Assessment (SDA), which is based on a Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) analysis over the decarbonization period. The SDA should include the complexities of a capital refresh, tenant improvements, and non-energy benefits. Asset investment should be in the context of a comprehensive decarbonization roadmap rather than simply reactive maintenance.

One-to-one Equipment Swap with Air Source Heat Pump Is the Best Electrification Option

A one-to-one equipment swap with air source heat pumps, which is typically the first full-electrification option considered, may not be a realistic decarbonization strategy – particularly for owners of large buildings facing various constraints around thermal distribution systems, roof space, tenant disruption, and energy supply. In fact, it is advantageous to determine the building’s need for heat pumps toward the end of the decarbonization road mapping process to ensure that the heat pumps can run optimally. Significantly reducing loads, recovering and reusing heat wherever possible by enabling thermal networking, and using a cascading approach to decarbonizing easy-to-electrify loads are likely advantageous steps to take before installing heat pumps. Systems should be optimized to deliver heating or cooling efficiently over the integrated sum of the year’s diverse conditions, the vast majority of which are at part-load. Efforts to reduce and shift loads can help reduce peak capacity. However, electrification of more difficult peaks may require special consideration within the building’s roadmap and taking a rational approach to resilience and accounting for evolving electric grid or thermal network supply conditions. This is the foundation of Resource Efficient Decarbonization.

Electrify Everything… Immediately and All at Once!

Perhaps because the electrification movement was born in mild-climate California, the cold-climate, tall-building narrative has been incomplete. Decarbonization skeptics suggest that if it doesn’t make sense to electrify everything in one simple move, then it doesn’t make sense to electrify anything.  The reality is that tall buildings in cold climates like New York must overcome space constraints and distribution challenges to provide comfort at peak load conditions without straining the electric grid or requiring oversized, sticker-shock-inducing equipment capacity.

A more suitable slogan for Northeast electrification champions would be “Electrify Everything Efficiently.” Engineers should model building energy consumption data across granular temperature bins (see Figure below) and plan for electrification with “easy” loads like domestic hot water, then mild temperature loads (typically representing 80%+ of total loads), and finally for the extremes. This is the cascade approach. Until a viable solution emerges, a building owner might even keep a small gas-fired boiler and their steam radiators around as a reserve as they learn to grapple with resilient functionality at heating design conditions. Despite global average temperatures increasing, cold snaps may even become more extreme due to a collapsing winter Polar Vortex.

Annual Energy Usage by Temperature Bin

Technology Installed Today Will Be Obsolete Tomorrow

There are plenty of technology-neutral enabling steps to take prior to committing to a particular low-carbon retrofit technology. Buildings are constantly evolving and exist on a continuum unless demolition is planned. Reducing loads, enabling thermal recovery, sharing and networking, and implementing grid interactivity are all priority measures that might take place prior to electrifying heat sources. Consultants also must determine the value of inaction and the value at risk if a building owner decides to do nothing. Balancing this risk with the pace of technological innovation is a delicate analysis and is impossible to conduct without a Strategic Decarbonization Assessment. When in doubt, look to leverage existing infrastructure like using chilled water loops for heating to replace partial loads. Electrifying perimeter heating used during extreme temperatures may be a later priority or absent from the critical path on a strategic decarbonization roadmap. Look to the case studies emerging out of the Empire Building Challenge for more information on this strategy.

My Tenants Don’t Think This is a Priority

Consider the tangential benefits of pursuing decarbonization early. For example, more and more Class A tenants are demanding environmental action from landlords to comply with shareholder environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) requirements. Accelerating facade improvements may reduce the need for invasive and expensive maintenance down the line. Indoor air quality, improved comfort, and operability are emerging priorities among all tenant types. 

Electricity Produces Emissions

Yes, but not for too much longer. States are legislating 100% carbon-free electric grids like New York did in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act). Modeling total emissions over time using declining electric grid carbon emissions coefficients across multiple decarbonization scenarios is an important task. Phasing in electrification over time and in a strategic way is the only pathway to eliminating on-site emissions.

Chart, line chart

Description automatically generated

It’s Too Disruptive and Expensive to Decarbonize a Building All at Once

Achieving carbon neutrality typically requires and benefits from a phased approach versus decarbonizing all at once. Incremental implementation of low-carbon retrofits across a continuum is critical to reaching building operations carbon neutrality in cold climates. Evaluate the cost-effectiveness of phasing and maintaining technology optionality and the risk mitigation benefits these efforts might deliver. Decarbonization efforts fall on a decision-making tree, which evolves as time elapses and technology, policy, or other conditions change; each branch of the decision-making tree is a new decision point. Sustainability and asset managers can plan these intervention points over the decarbonization period.

Chart, diagram

Description automatically generated with medium confidence