Biden-Harris Administration to Electrify Buildings and Clean Up Indoor Air Quality

The proposed changes promise to lower energy costs, save money, and cut emissions.

Energy Secretary Granholm and President Biden are in the news

Alex Wong / Getty Images

The White House announced that new and renovated federal buildings are getting off gas, with the intent to electrify 30% of all federal buildings by 2030. "As the country’s single largest energy consumer and building manager, these new actions will save taxpayer dollars by reducing energy use while cutting millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions, increasing resilience, strengthening U.S. energy independence, and growing the jobs of the future in America," the White House said.

The new Federal Building Performance Standard calls for "deep energy retrofits and strategic equipment replacement in existing buildings, campuses, and installations to meet emission and energy reduction goals" with zero fossil fuel emissions on-site, and all equipment, including cooking, will be all-electric.

The Department of Energy said it will save money, reduce pollution and fight climate change. “Ridding pollution from our buildings and adopting clean electricity are some of the most cost-effective and future-oriented solutions we have to combat climate change,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “For the first time ever, DOE is establishing a firm timetable to reduce the government’s carbon footprint in new and existing federal facilities—ensuring the Biden-Harris Administration is leading by example in the effort to reach the nation’s ambitious climate goals.”  

Federal Standard

Council on Environmental Quality

There are many building functions that consume a great deal of gas, and the Standard goes after these big hunks, noting that agencies should prioritize facilities including:

  • High on-site fossil-fuel use (e.g., high heating loads based on cold climate locations or
    building types with high cooking or hot water loads, such as dining halls, barracks, etc.);
  • High operational energy use intensity or water use intensity;
  • High operation and maintenance costs;
  • Large footprint (gross square footage) or similar use types or characteristics that would benefit from a portfolio strategy with repetitive approaches.
  • In need of a major system replacement(s) or with equipment at the end of its useful life;
  • Need for improved resilience.
  • Expected space reconfiguration or occupancy change; or
  • Older buildings with aging infrastructure systems that are not considered for disposition.

Some of these, like high cooking or hot water loads, have traditionally been done with gas, and they use a lot of it. Similarly, large-footprint buildings will need a lot of electricity to replace gas. This will be a challenge, and it won't be cheap.

The response from the usual suspects is what one would expect. Steven Nadel of the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy said the plans “should serve as a model for states, cities, and building owners around the country who are increasingly looking to decarbonize and cut costs.”

Johanna Neumann of advocacy organization Environment America's campaign for 100% renewable energy said it will influence and encourage others to get off fossil fuels. “A building performance standard for the thousands of federally owned buildings puts a hefty finger on the scale for efficient all-electric building,” said Neumann. “With goals and incentives in place, the federal government is now committing to action in its brick-and-mortar operations. Today’s commitment will reduce energy costs and spur a nationwide switch to buildings that waste less and pollute less. When courthouses in Iowa and federal buildings in Florida stop heating and cooling with fossil fuels such as gas, coal or propane, it paves the way for others in their community to follow.” 

"Eliminating natural gas in federal buildings is an impractical, unscientific, and expensive idea that will have no environmental benefit," said Karen Harbert of the American Gas Association. She claimed that gas is "3.4 times more affordable than electricity to heat buildings." But she clearly has not been informed about heat pumps, which cut the amount of electricity needed for a given amount of heat by about 3.4 times, depending on the coefficient of performance.

New Rules on Indoor Air Quality

The American Gas Association and Harbert have more to worry about than just the new building performance standard. Getting much less attention but probably just as significant are the new rules on indoor air quality that the administration announced as well. As engineer and air quality expert Richard Corsi notes, these have been a long time coming.

The government committed to "establish the Federal buildings portfolio (approximately 1,500 federally owned facilities across America) as an exemplar of innovation, implementation, and standards for indoor air quality."

The White House announced:

"The Biden-Harris Administration has mobilized Departments and Agencies across the Federal government to improve indoor air quality using the best research, innovation, communication, and education tools available. In the immediate term, these activities aim to equip and empower state and local leaders, schools, small businesses, building owners, and everyday Americans to improve indoor air quality in the places they live, work, eat, learn, exercise, and travel."

The guidelines establish MERV-13 filters as minimum filtration efficiency requirements in federal building heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. And, more importantly: "Advancing a national program to verify proper ventilation in federally owned buildings."

This is something we have often complained about: Nobody actually knows what the air quality is because it has not been monitored. The government will continue funding "research to improve understanding of airborne transmission, deployment of effective interventions, and communication of the benefits of indoor air quality."

These are two major changes in the regulation of buildings in the U.S. For years, the emphasis has been on energy savings, but the new standard reflects the importance of reducing carbon emissions, and the way to do that is to stop burning fossil fuels. Also, for years, air quality was pretty much ignored and was often even made worse in the interest of energy savings. Now, there is a consideration for better filtration and more ventilation. Again, a major source of indoor and outdoor air pollution is fossil fuels.

We can look forward to some significant pushback from the fossil fuel industry and the politicians that it funds—these are major threats to business as usual.