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How buildings could reduce their carbon emissions by 80 percent

Energy use in buildings and homes accounts for over one third of CO2 emissions in the United States. However, a new model developed by Jared Langevin, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and colleagues, shows that cutting the amount of emissions produced by U.S. buildings by 80% by 2050 is an attainable goal and requires the installation of new energy-efficient building technologies, innovative operational approaches, the electrification of fossil-fuel consuming building systems, and an increase in the share of electricity generated from renewable energy sources.

“Buildings are a substantial lever to pull in trying to reduce total national CO2 emissions since they are responsible for 36% of all energy-related emissions in the U.S.,” said lead author Jared Langevin. “Because the buildings sector uses energy in a multitude of ways and is responsible for such a large share of electricity demand, buildings can help accelerate the cost-effective integration of clean electricity sources on top of contributing direct emissions reductions through reduced energy use.”

Langevin and his colleagues considered three types of efficiency measures in their estimates of possible CO2 emissions reductions. These efficiency measures included alternatives like dynamic windows and wall air sealing, control strategies to improve building operations, and the conversion of fuel-fired heating and water systems to electric systems.

They also looked at how parallel incorporation of renewable energy sources into the electric grid could potentially shift emissions reduction estimates from individual buildings and the total buildings sector.

“While building CO2 emissions are quite sensitive to the greenhouse gas intensity of the electricity supply, measures that improve the efficiency of energy demand from buildings need to be part of the solution,” Langevin said. “Getting close to the 80% emissions reduction target requires concurrent reductions in building energy demand, electrification of this demand, and substantial penetration of renewable sources of electricity — nearly half of annual electricity generation by 2050.” 

“Moreover, buildings can support the cost-effective integration of variable renewable sources by offering flexibility in their operational patterns in response to electric grid needs.”

After considering many different avenues, the researchers found two particularly promising ways to effectively reduce emissions output. The first is installing energy-saving retrofits and upgrades to windows, walls, roofs, and insulation. And the second is the usage of smart software that optimizes energy-intensive building heating, cooling, lighting, and ventilation services.

“Regulations and incentives that support the sale of more efficient, less carbon-intensive technology options, early-stage research and development that drives breakthroughs in technology performance, aggressive marketing of those technologies once developed, training for local contractors charged with technology installation, and consumer willingness to consider purchasing newer options on the market are all needed to achieve the 80% emissions reduction goal by 2050,” Langevin said.

The study and model is published in Joule.

By Olivia Harvey, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Quality Stock Arts

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