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Building emissions in Connecticut contribute heavily to climate change

Each of Habitat Zero's Energy Ready homes in Windsor is about 1,600 square feet with four bedrooms. They are well-sealed top, bottom and sides to minimize energy needs. All energy is electric.
Jan Ellen Spiegel
CT Mirror
Each of Habitat Zero's Energy Ready homes in Windsor is about 1,600 square feet with four bedrooms. They are well-sealed top, bottom and sides to minimize energy needs. All energy is electric.

The not-quite-finished home on Rainbow Road, not far from Bradley Airport in Windsor, has the unmistakable scent of fresh paint. The trim four-bedroom sits in a row with three other identical Habitat for Humanity homes — all, at first glance, functional and no-frills.

But they’re actually a lot more than that.

These houses represent the leading edge of energy efficiency and the move away from fossil fuel use in construction. Once solar is added to their roofs, these homes will be at or near net-zero for greenhouse gas emissions. Such potential speaks to the state’s ability to address what now constitutes its second-largest, and growing, category of greenhouse gas emissions — building emissions.

In fact, the state’s newly released updated Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory shows that for the first time, just the residential sector — never mind commercial and industrial buildings — has replaced the electric sector as the state’s second-largest emitter after transportation.

Furthermore, the fact that Habitat built budget-conscious, emissions-free homes that are accessible to financially-challenged owners may well be a significant indicator that such design and construction is no longer the domain of wealthy homeowners.

Yes, they cost a little more to build — about 10% more — said Kris McKelvie, director of construction for Habitat’s North Central Connecticut office, which means Habitat has to raise more money. “If we raise a little bit more we could save them hundreds of thousands of dollars in their lifetime and potentially for generations,” he said.

McKelvie helped create the concept for the Habitat homes in 2017 and has overseen construction of eight since then, with 16 planned over the next three years — six in Hartford and 10 in East Hartford.

But the ability to build them does not necessarily mean the state has the willingness to make sure it happens.

Until recently the state has invested little effort or money in lowering building emissions. So McKelvie, like others, has had to figure it out on his own. He’s been helped somewhat by federal programs and the Biden administration’s funding, as well as searching out ideas from initiatives in other states.

McKelvie is unlikely to get much help from this legislature. Several bills, including one proposed by the governor, that would have addressed building emissions more substantively are now dead or gutted. That leaves only a recent change to the state building code as a guidepost.

Environment Committee Co-Chair Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, is likely used to such failure — having been unsuccessful in his former role as co-chair of the Housing Committee in getting the legislature to ban fossil fuel use for things like heat, hot water and cooking in new construction.

This session, he said, the hearing testimony was clear. “The changes didn’t quite make sense and needed more work,” he said.

Part of what may be hampering more robust action is that most folks — legislators included — have only a vague idea of what building emissions are. It’s not as if buildings have tailpipes, like cars, right?

“There absolutely is a tailpipe on a building,” said Melissa Kops, laughing.

Kops wears several hats — she’s an architect who is a project manager for the City of New Haven, a volunteer and former board member of the Connecticut Green Building Council, and is actively involved with the current push to legislate ways to lower building emissions. But if you don’t know what building emissions are, curbing them becomes even harder. The fact that they involve a multi-layered set of factors relating to climate change probably doesn’t make anything easier.

Addressing building emissions involves more than energy efficiency, insulation, electric heat pumps, solar panels and no longer using natural gas. And, contrary to the recent culture wars — it does not involve someone coming to get your gas stove.

At least not yet.

What you didn’t know about building emissions

Building emissions tend to fall into two broad categories, operational and embodied. Embodied emissions come from constructing a building, while operational emissions come from running it. Those two categories are further divided into three so-called scopes.

Scope 1 are those emissions literally created in a building from things like heat, use of natural gas and from industrial operations. Scope 2 are those emissions created outside the building to provide services such as electricity to the building.

Scope 3 is everything else. It includes the emissions created getting water, bringing it to a building and then using it; ongoing maintenance and repair to the building; transportation needed to get to the building; and embodied emissions.

They are the emissions created in providing the materials used in the building. The biggest emission offenders in that category are steel and concrete — two of the most widely used and carbon-intensive materials.

For the first time residential emissions, a component of building emissions, has replaced electricity as the number 2 largest emissions sector in Connecticut.
CT Mirror
For the first time residential emissions, a component of building emissions, has replaced electricity as the number 2 largest emissions sector in Connecticut.

Building emissions in the state’s latest greenhouse gas inventory add up to a little more than a third of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Though largely unknown to the general public, there’s been a bit of movement by policy makers to do more about it than just hand-wringing.

For about a dozen years the state has been trying to cut emissions in the buildings it owns. Originally called Lead By Example, it morphed into GreenerGov, the result of an executive order by Gov. Lamont in 2019, which was then strengthened by another executive order in 2021.

But now lowering building emissions includes more than the initial easy stuff, like switching to more efficient lighting and beefing up insulation in older buildings. In addition to obvious changes such as renewable energy like rooftop solar, it includes sustainability goals for water, waste and transportation — which are useful in their own right, but also have an impact on building emissions.

The state’s effort now includes benchmarking — the industry term for figuring out what your emissions are so you can then figure out how to reduce them.

Ryan Ensling, an associate research analyst with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the state uses a web-based platform to track utility information to see energy performance levels and greenhouse gas emissions from its buildings — many of which have been benchmarked.

“We have about over 500 buildings benchmarked that we’re able to get really great data for,” he said. A couple dozen have already had energy audits, which gets them in the pipeline for energy-saving retrofits next year.

GreenerGov tracks the progress, but with only a couple of years of data so far, plus the aberration of the pandemic, it’s hard to tell how successful it’s been.

A more recent focus that would apply far beyond state-owned buildings has been to update the state’s building codes — which for years lagged behind the international and other codes that were available. Such codes do come into play with construction on existing structures. But their real power is with new buildings.

To that end, last October the state adopted as part of its 2022 building code, the most updated building energy code out there — the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code or IECC. Connecticut is one of the first states to adopt the 2021 IECC across the board.

“It's always the most cost effective thing to build this stuff in from the beginning,” Kops said. “If you don't plan for this now, it's much more costly to try to put it in or retrofit the building to be able to do these things later. So that's why new construction makes so much sense.”

The 2021 IECC has a different approach from past codes. Instead of prescribing specific levels of insulation or wall thickness, for example, it is essentially performance-based, setting efficiency outcomes that can be met in various ways through a menu or assembly approach, said Darren Hobbs, the deputy commissioner for real estate and construction services at the Department of Administrative Services.

“You're allowed to have a little bit more flexibility in the design and I think that way, we'll probably overall get a better result,” Hobbs said, noting that the IECC is always evolving. “As each code cycle comes and goes those menu options just set the bar a little higher.”

“The broadest intent of the code is to reduce the use of energy,” Hobbs said. But it is still geared to addressing Scope 1 and 2 emissions, leaving out Scope 3 which covers the energy used in construction and materials.

To rectify that, the state is updating its high performance building standards, which also apply to a small number of properties that are not owned by the state but receive state funding.

Connecticut is also considering adopting the International Green Construction Code or IgCC for state buildings. It is a more holistic construction approach — not just about the building’s energy, and would look at many of the other aspects, such as building materials.

There absolutely is a tailpipe on a building.

Both the IECC and IgCC would have their biggest impact on new construction, and no doubt would be much more cost-effective and efficient than going back later to change things. But the number of new buildings that come into existence yearly is minuscule compared to what’s already been built. Other than GreenerGov, however, there has been no broad-based move by this or previous administrations to deal with emissions from existing buildings — which are typically old and inefficient, as is much of New England’s aging building stock.

Meanwhile, energy efficiency programs are largely geared at lowering energy bills, not necessarily cutting emissions. And their main target tends to be lower income households.

Connecticut is also facing the reality that it is not on track to meet its economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions targets in the Global Warming Solutions Act. The state's new Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, which covered the years 2019-2021, noted that the 2020 target was achieved. The next target, coming in 2030, is to cut emissions to 45% below 2001 levels. The state inventory specifically said, however: "To set the pace of reductions needed to meet the 2030 GWSA targets, deeper reductions in emissions must be achieved through retrofits of Connecticut’s older housing stock."

Some states and cities in the U.S., including some of our neighbors, are starting to deal with existing buildings. The notion of doing that is just beginning to change Connecticut’s legislative mindset — but not in time for this session.

Connecticut has a long way to go, according to metrics released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its annual ranking of top cities with the most Energy Star certified buildings. Energy Star is a federal program that gauges energy efficiency. No city in the state made any of the lists — top 25 overall, mid-sized cities, or small cities.

Session whiplash

When the legislative session began in January, there were some ambitious plans for dealing with building emissions. More than a half-dozen bills, in addition to the governor’s bill, targeted aspects of building emissions. A few — including one that specifically targets emissions and efficiency in new school buildings — are still alive.

But the governor’s bill is now a drastically shrunken version of its original self, consisting of really only two items. The main provision, which has failed in previous sessions, would require landlords to provide for most rental units a “Connecticut Home Energy Label” as an indication of energy efficiency. This would give renters some sense of what their energy bills might be. The labels would be developed by DEEP and rolled out over several years. Home sales do not require energy labels and previous legislative efforts to mandate them have failed, though the state's inventory recommended them as well.

The only other item still in the bill aims to increase tree cover in environmental justice areas as a means to lower energy bills, especially during air conditioning season.

Gone from the bill are provisions for training multiple trades on technologies needed to implement the IECC, and one that would allow DEEP to seek proposals for new energy transmission infrastructure. The latter is unlikely find a home in an energy bill this session.

Most notably removed is a provision that had been championed by environmental advocates — authorization to allow municipalities to choose an even stricter energy standard than the IECC. This sort of action is often referred to as a "stretch code."

In this case, cities and towns could use the IECC now in place or they could opt for tighter standards in the IECC appendices to reach a zero energy level. Because they would be limited to that one set of tighter standards as an option, there’s no threat of different energy codes in every municipality. The CT inventory also recommended adoption of a net-zero energy building code.

The proposal was widely criticized during public hearings — including by those who incorrectly argued it would allow each town to set its own standard.

“Our members service the 169 cities in Connecticut and I can’t imagine trying to coordinate 189 (sic) different sets of codes, on top of the half dozen compliance codes we already utilize and follow today,” wrote Leslie Anderson, president and CEO of the Propane Gas Association of New England. Anderson compared the measure to a ban on traditional fuels and heating equipment. “Policymakers should heed the reaction by the public after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the potential banning of gas cooking stoves which was met with outrage and ridicule.”

Many members of the construction community and rental property owners opposed energy labeling, as well as the stretch code provision.

We can fight industry [and] people till we're blue in the face over new construction, but new construction is not the problem.

“It will make the housing affordability crisis in Connecticut much worse than it is now,” said Kenneth Mita of Central Connecticut Construction Management, incorrectly stating it would allow towns to set their own standards. “I wish to underscore how much more difficult it would be to build in Connecticut when each builder could potentially have to build to different standards in each and every town he or she works.”

But it was Eric Santini of Santini Homes who brought up the issue of existing building stock. “If we desire to make a real, substantial, and sustainable impact to our energy usage in the state, we should focus our attention on incentivizing energy retrofits.”

And that is where co-chair Lopes has now landed philosophically as well.

“We can fight industry [and] people till we're blue in the face over new construction, but new construction is not the problem,” he said noting the standard IECC and other construction codes already in place will ensure energy efficiency and emissions reductions in new buildings. “Where is my gain? Where's my bang for my buck? Going after new construction? It's just not there.

“How much do we want to fight with someone over a really small gain where we can put more effort next year into going after existing housing stock?”

It’s not a new concept. Known as performance standards, it’s been gaining traction around the country, including in neighboring New York, Massachusetts and Vermont.

Performance standards

Connecticut is conspicuous by its absence in the National Building Performance Standards Coalition initiated by the Biden administration more than a year ago and followed by the administration establishing performance standards for federal buildings late last year.

Boston was an early convert said Ben Silverman, now with Institute for Market Transformation or IMT, a non-profit that champions all aspects of building decarbonization. He used to work for the city of Boston, where he helped spearhead initial efforts to make the city’s buildings more climate friendly.

More than a decade ago, the city began making climate action plans and studies, putting together a benchmarking policy that required larger buildings to annually report their energy consumption to the city.

From that data, Boston established a performance standard program called the Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance or BERDO. Under it, large buildings are required to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of reaching net zero by 2050.

“I guess you would call it the flagship of Boston's work on decarbonizing its existing buildings, but it's not the only policy,” Silverman said. “They're working with a number of the local utilities on incentives and rebates going out to residents … as well as passing zoning and building codes that require high performing buildings from the get-go.”

Now the city is on the verge of adopting what’s known as the specialized stretch code, which is an optional code put in place by former Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. It has strong climate change-focused restrictions that are just short of banning the use of fossil fuels — though that may be on the way for public buildings.

In New York City, the operative policy is known a Local Law 97, which hails from the DeBlasio administration in 2019. Large buildings are required to meet rigorous emissions and efficiency standards beginning next year, with even stricter limits in 2030 and beyond.

“New construction is certainly important. That's the cheapest time that you can make buildings better. So yeah, absolutely. You know, going with highly energy efficient, very resilient, reliable, new homes and buildings is a great start. That's kind of the low hanging fruit,” said Cliff Majersik, also with IMT as a senior advisor for policy and programs. “It's also not enough if you have real climate commitments like Connecticut has. So if you're looking at your buildings, you're typically only adding less than 2% to your buildings every year. So if you're only relying on new construction, you're not going to move things very quickly.”

Decarbonization of the electric grid also remains critical – but it’s still not enough, he said.

“There's an investment cost but there's also great return. It will make Connecticut more competitive, more attractive to its residents, employees. And building owners are going to save money every month on their utility bills as well as tenants. And this is going to create jobs for any jurisdiction, including Connecticut."

A host of other cities including Washington D.C., Seattle, and Montpelier, VT are adopting performance standards as well. A few states have signed on, one of which is Colorado.

Its process was to first create a greenhouse gas pollution reduction roadmap, set near- and long-term actions and the statutory requirements to go with them, including a 50% economy-wide emissions reduction by 2030. The building sector is required to have a 20% reduction by then. Benchmarking requirements for large buildings were put in place with the first installment just recently due.

“We went through a one-year process with a task force made up of building owners and operators, engineers, conservation advocates, utilities, trade groups, that developed a set of recommendations on what the performance standards look like,” said Keith Hay, senior director of policy in Colorado's state energy office where he oversees the section of the office that oversees building decarbonization policy. “I would say the lead recommendation is make sure you have a flexible set of pathways for building owners to work towards compliance and that draft rules very much adopt the approach of - there's not one way to do it. There are several ways that a building owner could do it and keeping that flexibility in place.

“The strength has been the work that we've done, building the legislation and making sure that we are talking to all of the different stakeholder groups.”

Connecticut doesn’t really have a roadmap. “I think the comprehensive energy strategy is intended to help to establish that kind of a roadmap,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The latest iteration of the strategy — required by law every five years beginning in 2013 — is due out shortly. Gov. Lamont’s 2021 executive order does require that it address building emissions and, as part of that, DEEP said it has started looking at what building information currently exists and is pulling together primarily residential tax assessor data on things like home heating systems and how efficient or inefficient the buildings are.

But benchmarking beyond state buildings? It’s not happening here, though some think it should be.

Where to start

“The first thing is, stop the bleeding and allow cities to be able to decide if they want to require greater energy efficiency,” said Kops, still advocating stretch codes even though it is all-but-dead for this session, and she, too, agrees the form it was in was too confusing. “I live in New Haven so I'm constantly seeing new buildings, new large residential buildings being constructed. It's just a shame that we're not locking in a minimal amount of energy efficiency and electrification.”

In a dense area like New Haven, a more lax standard means more people will be exposed to air pollution in a city that already has the highest asthma rates in the state, she said.

I think you start with the low hanging fruit. So that definitely does not mean trying to figure out what the guy who worked in the factory in China had for lunch.

There are different factors in different locations, argued Webly Bowles, senior project manager at the New Buildings Institute, a non-profit that for a quarter-century has helped the building industry and its stakeholders achieve better carbon-free, sustainable and climate-conscious buildings.

“We're looking at different climates, right? We're looking at what can the electrical grid do? What can the utility do? What is the political will? What's the impact on the community?” she said. “That's where the community and political will really come in. Because if you don't have those, you can't move anything forward, or meet any of your goals.”

Add to those factors: is the building residential or commercial? Industrial or municipal? Is it owner-occupied or leased? What are the over-arching building codes? How much money are you willing to spend?

“There's a huge difference between an existing residential building like a home and an existing commercial building, the paths to reduce emissions in those, in a house versus a commercial building that you might have in Hartford or something,” said Daniel Bresette, president of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “They're owned differently. They're operated differently. They serve entirely different purposes. And it means there's all sorts of ramifications for how those improvements are financed. They're really complicated.”

And remember, this is largely dealing with operational emissions. Embodied emissions — the products used to construct a building and where they come from — involve an additional set of factors. It could mean having to trace a building component back to its source. Was the wood grown sustainably; what kind of power was used to run the steel mill?

“I think you start with the low hanging fruit,” said Majersik of IMT. “So that definitely does not mean trying to figure out what the guy who worked in the factory in China had for lunch.”

Connecticut is only just starting to discuss how to deal with those aspects of building emissions on a systemic basis.

In the meantime

The trajectory in the current legislative session means folks like McKelvie at Habitat for Humanity aren’t likely to get much more guidance than they have now, and that anyone else trying to do what he’s done are largely on their own.

The one exception might be schools, which is music to Gene DeJoannis’s ears. At least it would have been about a half-a-decade ago when the retired engineer began pushing his town of Manchester to renovate the 1950s-era Buckley Elementary School as a net-zero energy structure.

“The Board of Ed didn't know about net-zero energy and didn’t care. So I went to three of the meetings and kept putting that pitch in,” DeJoannis said.

He succeeded, and in the end Buckley was the first such school in the state.

Buckley doesn’t just have solar — complete with a solar flower out front. It has state-of-the-art ventilation, loads of insulation, and the newest in energy efficiency tools. Sensors turn lights off when a room is empty and that in turn lowers ventilation levels. Carbon dioxide sensors in common areas like the lunchroom sense when more people are there and the ventilation ramps up.

But all that came with a steep learning curve at first. And DeJoannis agrees it would be much easier if the state had all this set out in code. “That would be nice,” he said. Legislation that still has some life to it this session would require net zero and other climate considerations for new and substantially renovated schools.

“Honestly, to us, like I think to a lot of people, net zero, zero energy, that kind of language is really vague and confusing,” McKelvie said. “I think the biggest surprise was that once the terminology and the requirements were broken down, specific to the types of homes we were building, it wasn't that complicated.

“I’d say the biggest lesson is, it's possible. We can achieve this. You do not have to make drastic changes to home designs or structures to build all-electric and efficient homes.”

If Habitat can do it, then pretty much anybody can do it.

“Exactly,” McKelvie said. “Yes. Exactly.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.