Politics Let's not forget: 'Build Back Better' applies to buildings, too
Federal Historic Tax Credits build community character in brick and mortar
The Federal Historic Tax Credit has helped to preserve some of our nation’s architectural history.Unfortunately, historic buildings can prove to be among the most difficult and expensive projects to bring to fruition because of embedded neglect, previous renovations (which may have been slipshod), the presence of hazardous materials, and the numerous updates required to bring historic projects up to modern building codes.
President Biden, under the auspices of his campaign motto "," is wasting no time in showing us that the next four years of federal energy, environment and climate governance will be markedly different than the last. This is especially true for the transportation and electric power sectors, both of which the Biden-Harris administration plans to rapidly decarbonize and modernize, as indicated by consistent rhetoric, cabinet appointments and , its to climate-related events like the Texas power crisis and, of course, the recently debuted " ."
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However, some especially steep goals have been established in Biden's- namely to retrofit and otherwise improve the energy performance of . While it has not been made clear which buildings are to be improved, indications are that this goal applies to commercial buildings, or approximately two-thirds of the U.S. commercial building stock.
First, some perspective.
Like the power sector, the buildings sector is a major emitter. Despite achieving a 5.2 percent year-on-year reduction in carbon intensity, the sector still generated some. Yet unlike the power sector, whose carbon emissions COVID-induced lockdowns and entrenched market forces have significantly , it's likely that the building sector's emissions problem will not fade at the rate needed to achieve Paris Agreement goals without government intervention.
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At the time of this writing, the only major legislation to be signed into law wherein such action would be most appropriate - the- is without any significant provisions for implementing the president's plans to overhaul building energy performance nationwide.
For their part, clean energy and climate advocates and other groups in the "Build Back Better" tent are. On the contrary, these groups are closing ranks behind the Biden-Harris administration and setting their sights on a once-in-a-generation to effectuate their mantra, similar to the more than $2 trillion agenda the president just unveiled in Pittsburgh at the end of March.
There's just one problem. And that is Congress's infamous track record of inertia and gridlock on major infrastructure legislation that, with the slim majorities Biden's allies have in the House and Senate, may not change anytime soon, especially as arguments for austerityas the economy continues its recovery.
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What's more, it's increasingly evident that non-building assets - electric power transmission and distribution lines, broadband, EV charging infrastructure, interstate highways, ports etc. - may attract the most of whatever economic and political resources national policymakers end up directing towards infrastructure. This is what makes charting a clear path forward for building decarbonization so important.
To that end, lawmakers and their constituents must understand that the U.S. government can drive significant building decarbonization without requiring new authorizations to establish, for instance, a first-of-its-kind federal energy efficiency standard for commercial buildings. Among other reasons, this is because roughly one quarter of all U.S. commercial buildings are public facilities, according to the 2012 and 2018 Commercial Buildings and Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS).
The federal government is thebuilding owner and operator in the country and wields significant capacity to implement equipment and service procurement and building performance standards across its facilities. At the state and local levels, too, the U.S. government can scale and mobilize funding to support the implementation of efficiency-enhancing procurement and performance standards and outcomes of non-federal public facilities through existing . Legislation that supports or otherwise incentivizes broader use of energy savings performance contracts ( ) among federal, state and local agency directors and public facility managers is particularly relevant - for two reasons.
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First, it's comparatively easy to get through Congress and has the added potential of making more attractive any forthcoming omnibus infrastructure package in which it's included - because this would mostly be a matter of directing additional funding towards well-established programs, such as the State Energy Program () and the Federal Energy Management Program's (FEMP) , via existing authorizations. More important, public facility managers that engage via ESPCs can expect to leverage the amount towards energy performance enhancements that would be accomplished through federal funding alone.
But don't take my word for it. There are emerging signs that support for these pathways is gaining momentum. For instance, House Democrats introduced in March the(OBB) of 2021, which supplements existing SEP and AFFECT appropriations with billions of dollars in additional funding over the next several years, with the requirement that grant recipients leverage private financing via ESPCs and similar mechanisms to the greatest possible extent.
Tellingly, the OBB is featured as a subtitle in the(CFA) introduced by House Democrats in March. This not only substantiates the roles that building energy efficiency programs play in any comprehensive climate agenda, but also speaks to the OBB's potential to mitigate the objectionability of the CFA's more ambitious provisions - namely the headlining national climate target and clean electricity standard. We saw a similar dynamic play out with the Open Back Better Act of 2020 which was incorporated into the broader infrastructure-focused before dying in the Senate.
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Evidence that the OBB's provisions enjoy broad appeal is abundant. In addition to the CLEAN Future Act, the OBB is included as a subtitle in the recently reintroduced, a sweeping, cross-sectoral infrastructure package that secured in the 116th Congress. A clear recognition of ESPCs as force multipliers for taxpayer dollars is evident in the March introduced of 2021, too, and to facilitate the economic recovery of the U.S. construction and clean energy jobs through the use of ESPCs to advance the energy performance of federal facilities.
But the size, scope and, frankly, necessity of the government's plans to decarbonize the electric power and transportation sectors will probably demand the lion's share of the Biden-Harris administration's resources - political and otherwise.
While that may mean the government divulges comparatively little about its plans to decarbonize the buildings sector in the meantime, that does not mean we are without a viable path forward. Lawmakers have at their disposal a variety of incumbent authorizations they can leverage to drive the modernization and decarbonization of our buildings in a timely and cost-effective manner. Let's hope that's not soon forgotten.
Dr. Timothy D. Unruh is executive director of the National Association of Energy Service Companies ().
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