Much of the national focus around electrification has centered on the transportation sector and the push toward electric vehicles.
But at the local level, a growing number of cities have also increased attention to their building stocks, using electrification strategies that have evolved in scope.
In the past few years, restricting natural gas hookups in new buildings has been an especially popular strategy throughout California, as well as in other major cities such as Seattle. That tactic is spreading. Last month, Eugene, Oregon, moved forward a resolution to mandate electrification in new buildings, which would make it the first city in the state to adopt such a policy.
Recently, some cities have started taking more comprehensive steps to lower emissions, including targeting existing buildings in need of retrofitting. While the aggressiveness of these policies varies, experts say there has been a new level of momentum toward building electrification.
In Denver, local leaders passed an ordinance last month that imposes stringent energy efficiency, renewable energy and building decarbonization requirements across commercial and multifamily buildings, which account for nearly half of the city's greenhouse gas emissions. The new requirements put the onus on buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to achieve 30% energy savings by 2030, a measure leaders expect to reduce building emissions by about 80% by 2040.
And in Ithaca, New York, local leaders entered into an agreement with Brooklyn-based BlocPower to manage a project electrifying all of the city's buildings, an unprecedented measure in a bid to become carbon-neutral by 2030.
A wave of cities changed their building codes in 2020, a "good first step" that doesn't require much money to be spent and helps build the market for new products, said Mike Henchen, a principal on the carbon-free building team at the Rocky Mountain Institute. But over the past year, there has been a proliferation of strategies beyond just building code changes.
"I think it's fair to say that in 2021, we've seen a lot of cities trying to take different approaches and find new ways to make progress on this issue," said Henchen.
The focus of decarbonization policies in recent years has been centered on new construction, said Jenna Tatum, director of the Building Electrification Institute, an organization that helps cities transition away from fossil fuels. But that focus began to change over the past year. "This year seems to be the year where more and more momentum is gaining on addressing existing buildings, which is going to be a much more difficult piece to address," said Tatum, who previously worked in the New York City Mayor's Office of Sustainability.
Ithaca's novel approach, which in part entailed lining up $100 million in private financing to support the transition, excites leaders in the space. But those leaders also acknowledged the difference in scale between Ithaca's 6,000 buildings and the much larger cities tackling the issue.
Observers were impressed by Denver's building performance policy and its implications for existing buildings. Tatum called it the most stringent policy she's seen of any city and "probably gold standard." By comparison, Boston earlier this fall finalized an ordinance stating that buildings 20,000 square feet or larger must achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Importantly, Denver is a fast-growing city with a lot of new residents, noted Sara Baldwin, director of electrification policy at energy and climate policy think tank Energy Innovation.
"Now is such a great opportunity, while we're seeing this growth happen, to set the bar and say 'from here on out, all new growth is going to be with an eye toward decarbonization and net-zero energy buildings,'” Baldwin said. “Otherwise, there is really very little chance that they'll be able to meet citywide goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and energy savings.”
Experts expect to continue to see a spectrum of electrification solutions in play for the foreseeable future. “So much of it depends on what is palatable to that local population,” said Amy Bailey, director of sustainability and engagement at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). For example, “Some cities that have a building energy benchmarking policy are well-positioned to then take that a step further to the building performance standard. So they're already [set up a framework] and this is like the next iteration.”
Cities are still learning a lot from each other, said Henchen, noting that no single city in the world is close to achieving an entirely carbon-free building stock. "Because there's not one proven formula, I think we're seeing a lot of experimentation and trying out different approaches," he said.
Experts are watching a number of cities in the months and year ahead, including New York City, where lawmakers have been working toward banning natural gas hookups for new construction. Meanwhile, at the state level, lawmakers there are considering a more sweeping policy to electrify all new buildings across New York.
Chicago convened a working group earlier this year focused on centering equity considerations in its plans to slash building emissions, as it ultimately aims to power all buildings with renewable energy by 2035. Philadelphia, which owns its gas utility, is also reviewing ways to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.
Vexing barriers to wide-scale electrification remain, not the least of which is how to overhaul buildings without worsening the housing affordability crisis that many cities are facing.
A study looking at the potential impact of building decarbonization on affordable housing in Los Angeles, published by planning and advisory firm Arup in September stated: "If not addressed in tandem, the goals of affordable housing preservation and decarbonization will be in conflict." The study recommended that financial subsidies promoting decarbonization ought to target affordable housing that is owned and operated by small owners, nonprofits and others that do not usually have equitable access to capital.
"These are the projects least likely to transition on their own and create the greatest opportunity to provide social benefit and broad market transformation," the report stated.
While Tatum is enthusiastic about the continued push for building decarbonization, she noted that, to date, the majority of policies enacted have focused on large buildings. Most cities have yet to fully tackle how to expand these types of changes to the significant portions of their building stocks comprised of smaller buildings.
"We're going to need a whole policy regime to address smaller buildings, and that has started in some places but there's a lot of work that needs to happen in that space,” Tatum said.