Carbon Reduction Through Energy Efficiency Isn’t Just a One-Man Show

June 19, 2015 | Amberli Young

Governments of all levels are shaping the conversation through aggressive emissions reductions and new policy frameworks.

Though ambitious carbon emission reduction goals are nothing new, this past year has seen some exciting developments in pushing the envelope on carbon standards at the national and local levels in the United States.  Beginning with international agreements like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s, governments of all levels and jurisdictions have been assessing the potential for carbon goals, and in many cases adopting specific goals into law.

One of the most recent notable examples is the Clean Power Plan, a proposed rule pending from the EPA to establish state-level carbon emission standards for the power sector, which is currently going through the rulemaking process.

When enacted, the Clean Power Plan would require every state to reduce annual carbon emissions from the power sector by a specific amount, with a national goal of 30% emission reductions from the power sector by 2030.  Paths to reach this goal include increasing power plant efficiency, using more low- and zero-emitting resources and power plants, and increased demand-side energy efficiency.  States are allowed to assess their own market and determine which solutions will work best for them to meet the EPA requirements.

There is even greater progress at the local level, where cities and county governments are setting even higher carbon reduction standards as part of their jurisdictions’ sustainability plans.  These carbon reduction goals apply not only to the power sector, but also across many areas including buildings, transportation, and waste.  New York City made headlines in September of 2014 by setting an ambitious goal of 80% reduction in annual carbon emissions based on 1990 levels by 2050.  New York is the largest city in the world to commit to this goal, and they were joined in 2015 by other American cities such as San Francisco and Boston in making the same commitment. 

President Obama created a recent initiative to reduce carbon emissions from the federal government by 40 percent by 2025 from 2008 levels.  Setting goals like these at the federal level sets a strong example for other jurisdictions and organizations to abide by, and shows that progress can be made at all levels of government.

When these city and federal goals are considered together, it marks a change towards elected officials prioritizing the reduction of carbon pollution, and opens up the potential for cross-governmental collaboration.  One area of overlap is in Building Block 4 of the Clean Power Plan: demand-side energy efficiency. At the state level, many governments have established Energy Efficiency Resource Standards, which set mandatory energy savings targets for utilities and can save millions of tons of carbon emissions annually.

Cities have authority in several areas in which they are able to address their carbon emissions, but for many the largest source of carbon emissions also represents the biggest electricity demand: local buildings. For New York City and Chicago, two of the most populated cities in the US, building energy use accounts for around 70% of the overall carbon emissions for the entire city.  Addressing these largest energy consumers could be a more impactful target than other options to meet local sustainability goals and comply with national policies, while creating additional economic benefits such as reduced operating costs and more green jobs.

Because the Clean Power Plan is applied at the state level, most states will focus on the biggest individual polluters such as coal-fired power plants. But by leveraging the common climate commitments and momentum in cities, governments of all levels have the opportunity to collaborate and increase energy efficiency, which is the cheapest and cleanest source of energy available.

There are many innovative policies and programs that cities and local governments are enacting and considering in the near future to meet their local goals. When applied en masse, they have the potential to generate large-scale savings for a state.  Next-generation policies for energy efficiency could include mandatory building improvements to reach a minimum performance level, or providing expedited permitting and tax abatements to owners who choose to build efficiently.

Five cities have enacted policies that require energy audits or retro-commissioning for commercial buildings, and when policies like mandatory retro-commissioning are applied across the large commercial sector alone they can save tens of thousands of metric tons of carbon emissions for a city.  Since these are emerging policies, it will be important for state and local governments to work together across regions to create methodologies for accounting for these savings in order to comply with the Clean Power Plan.

Thirteen cities, including Chicago and New York City, have mandatory benchmarking policies. The energy use information gathered from these policies, can be used to design policies and programs that can realize the huge savings potential in buildings.

Climate change is a global issue, and it will require the collaboration of governments of all levels to create innovative and practical solutions to solve.  But recent movements by multiple levels of government demonstrate that it is possible for any jurisdiction to take steps towards reducing carbon emissions, creating more green jobs, and saving money on energy.

This blog post also appears in The Energy Collective as part of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute's "New Energy Voices."

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