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Can you decarbonize using an ASHRAE energy audit?

decarbonize ashrae energy audit commercial building planning
Decarbonization of your existing buildings need a holistic analysis approach than an ASHRAE audit can provide. Learn where it conflicts with sustainability goals.

Decarbonization strategies, especially in retrofit building applications, need a more holistic approach to analysis than an ASHRAE audit, in its current form. Surges of RFPs in recent months from corporations, commercial property owners, cities, and townships demonstrate their goal to address climate change through decarbonization. Many request ASHRAE Level 2 or 3 audits for their portfolio of buildings to reduce energy use. Some also face an imposed timeline of escalating fines for other commercial facilities within their jurisdiction if they fail to hit established Energy Use Intensity (EUI) target values. These are noble and well-intentioned objectives in the ongoing battle to fight climate change. However, these goals can be at odds with each other. An ASHRAE audit is a great method to evaluate opportunities to reduce energy use and carbon footprints, but it faces challenges to address decarbonization.

Additionally, there is growing consensus that “electrification” is a means to a decarbonized economy based on the implicit promise that electricity generation will come from renewable sources as utilities across the country decommission fossil fuel-based power plants. Therein lies the rub.

Conflict between renewable energy, decarbonization and energy use reduction

This trifecta of clean renewable energy generation, decarbonization at the site level, and EUI reduction can often conflict with each other and requires a completely different approach for analysis than an ASHRAE audit.

Increased energy use

If one were to accept that electrification is a way to decarbonize, and that scope 2 emissions (indirect GHG emissions associated with energy purchases) will be eliminated as the generation mix converts to renewable sources, it is then safe to say that an increase in electricity use is okay and continues to put us on a path towards decarbonization.

Converting the biggest sources of emission generating equipment can increase EUI. Space heating, either hydronic or direct fire, along with domestic hot water heating using natural gas are the biggest sources of scope 1 emissions (direct emissions from onsite combustion) in buildings today. Thus, converting these from natural gas to electric makes the case that these changes are headed toward decarbonization. The lowest cost conversion is often going to be simple electric resistance heating sources (if it meets your local code, which in California it does not). This conversion will naturally increase the EUI of a facility. Under the premise that electrification equals decarbonization then why should we care about high EUI from a perspective of decarbonization? Operating costs, sure, but from a purely decarbonization perspective, a higher EUI building could technically be on the path to decarbonization. Conversely, a low EUI building could be more carbon intensive if scope 1 emissions increase. (For tips on lowering electrification costs, check out this post).

Misalignment of EUI and decarbonization

It is important to clearly understand that EUI reduction and decarbonization goals do not necessarily align. It is entirely possible that an effort in one direction without a clear understanding of other objectives can inadvertently (despite noble intentions) exacerbate the problem of climate change. EUI reduction approaches tend to be driven by cost-effective strategies that have favorable project economics. An ASHRAE audit is a perfect vehicle for this.

Decoupling project economics from decarbonization

Decarbonization requires more complex financial analysis and commitment to shift from the current simple payback and return on investment (ROI) approaches. There needs to be an implicit understanding that decarbonization will likely be very expensive and have a terrible ROI. But the goal is fundamentally different – the investment is being made to protect the planet and future generations, not earn a financial return.

ASHRAE is currently supporting decarbonization approaches in many ways (see their site), and the energy audit Standard 211 will be revised to cover the topic as well. However, it may be a while before a formal approach to decarbonization is issued that might provide a standardized approach. In the meantime, we all must chart our own courses.

Generational capital improvement planning

We need a holistic, systematic approach with a generational view that looks at a 20-30 year capital improvement planning cycle. Retrofits might exceed the potential useful life of a property as well. But the impacts of reduced scope 1 emissions will be immediate, and isn’t that the goal?

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