• Building Retrofits
  • Building Energy Management
  • Commercial Building Energy Efficiency
  • Decarbonization

The PACE to Go from 60 to Zero

Mar 25, 2021

Office lights

Chicago has a lesson for the rest of the country when it comes to reducing carbon emissions from buildings. The combined efforts of several programs, such as the Chicago PACE program and Chicago Building Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, led to reduced carbon emissions of 12% total across 232 buildings over 3 years. This progress shows that governmental attention along with targeted financial incentives can have an impact.

Retrofit Program Paybacks

The US Department of Energy (DOE), under Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, supports such programs through the Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs Office. Its purpose “is to enable strategic investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies through the use of innovative practices across the United States in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders, including state and local organizations.” In other words, this office helps state and local government agencies set up energy efficiency retrofit programs. 
Such programs encourage behavioral changes, even though such efforts often pay for themselves without incentives based on energy savings. And there is compelling evidence of cost savings. For example, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory tracked the spending of $11 billion on energy efficiency retrofits to public facilities funded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The results were compelling with a savings of $2 for every $1 invested.

Unfortunately, the data shows that alone, the financial incentives associated with reducing energy costs within buildings have been slow in motivating energy efficient retrofits in the decades since the 1973 Energy Crisis. Chicago Energy Benchmarking tracks data for larger buildings on their size, energy use, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and ENERGY STAR ranking. Most buildings, more than 70% of those reporting, score below 80, the minimum score to be considered energy efficient. If all the buildings in the benchmarking study were to become efficient through energy efficient retrofits, power demand and GHG emissions in Chicago would drop close to 30%. Buildings are the single largest user of energy in the US. Such a drop would have important implications. 

Reaching for Zero

President Biden has been clear about his administration’s goal for the US to produce zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Significant policy changes will need to occur to reach this goal. The US Energy Information Administration within the DOE recently published the Annual Energy Outlook 2021 with projections to 2050. This report is an evaluation based on current trends and policies. Although it forecasts the share of renewables increasing from 20% in 2021 to 40% in 2050, that means the remaining 60% of power will come from fossil fuels. The report data shows that the US generated about 4.8 billion metric tons of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2020 and by 2050, the report forecasts between 4.2 billion and 5.2 billion metric tons annually.

Supporting energy efficiency retrofit programs is an effective and important tool to pursue the goal of zero net carbon emissions. Expanding programs such as the PACE program in Chicago through the existing Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs Office will directly reduce energy use and help reduce the use of fossil fuels on the way to zero.