Climate bill signals massive changes for construction industry
The Climate Solutions Now Act, which was passed by Maryland’s General Assembly this spring, will have sweeping ramifications for the construction industry. While the overall emerging trends for construction are evident, how exactly the legislation will impact building design, retrofits, renewable energy installations, electric grid upgrades and transportation infrastructure will only be sorted out through a string of studies and ensuing debates over the next few years.
The bill requires Maryland to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) 60 percent economy-wide (compared to 2006 levels) by 2031 and reach net zero emissions by 2045. As part of that process, commercial buildings, multifamily buildings and state-owned buildings of 35,000 square feet or larger must begin reporting their energy use in 2025, cut their energy use and GHG emissions in 2025, cut those levels (compared to similar buildings) 20 percent by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2040. The bill exempts laboratory, industrial and agricultural buildings from those requirements.
For building owners, the first step is to complete energy audits of their properties, said Elizabeth Larson, Sustainability Engineer with Bala Consulting Engineers.
“Getting those metrics and identifying energy efficiency projects can not only save carbon emissions but also save money,” Larsen said. “Oftentimes, we see reductions in energy use of 10 to 15 percent.”
Those savings tend to come from core improvements, such as installing LED lighting, and retro-commissioning building systems.
“Through retro-commissioning, you often find that a building was never running the way it was designed because three engineers ago, someone decided to take a short cut and change some set points. Things cascaded from there and produced a very inefficient building,” said Andy Horning, Sustainability Leader at Bala.
However, achieving the 20 percent energy reduction in existing and new buildings, and eventually achieving net zero will require further initiatives. Some buildings will achieve major gains by replacing old HVAC equipment with high-efficiency systems, such as variable refrigerant flow systems. Rooftop solar installations could offset carbon impact of properties, especially those with roofs measuring 100,000 square feet or larger. For other buildings, newer products may deliver benefits.
“If you have a tall, skinny building, you only have a tiny roof and you can’t install enough panels to make any kind of difference in your energy use,” Horning said. “But if you have a whole, south-facing side of the building, you might be able to use photovoltaic glass.”
Ultimately, many building owners and developers will need to consider electric heat and hot water systems. Legislators removed requirements for an all-electric building code from the Climate Solutions legislation. However, the bill mandates that Maryland adopt the International Green Construction Code and tasked the Department of Labor Building Codes Administration with developing recommendations for an all-electric building code as well as recommendations on the fastest, most efficient way to decarbonize buildings. Interim reports are due January 2023.
The bill also establishes a Building Energy Transition Implementation Task Force to recommend programs, policies and incentives to subsidize retrofits of existing buildings, support building electrification and other GHG-reducing measures that don’t provide owners with a reasonable return on investment.
Patrick Morgan, Electrical Associate at James Posey Associates, described the approach as prudent. “The bill is written to deliver studies rather than just passing the buck onto a lot of owners and designers and say, ‘You figure it out and, by the way, your building is going to be two times as expensive in order to achieve these goals.’”
The results and implementation of those studies will have widespread impact on building owners in Maryland.
During testimony on the Climate Solutions Now Act, some presenters assessed that the bill would impact “1.5 billion square feet of construction space and the cost would be in the billions and billions of dollars to reach the 2030 target,” Richard Tabuteau, Managing Member of Tabuteau, LLC, said at the April BC&E Construction Blueprint Series webinar. “Those are anecdotal numbers but I am sure they are fairly accurate.”
Furthermore, decarbonizing building operations isn’t the only looming impact of the legislation on the construction industry.
The bill also mandates decarbonizing the transportation sector. Widespread adoption of electric vehicles will require commercial, government, multifamily and other buildings to be outfitted with EV charging infrastructure.
“It’s going to take a lot of studying by the power companies to make sure the EVs and PVs and all that site distribution, microgrid transaction infrastructure can come together on a site,” Morgan said. “They are going to have to figure out what a new, connected building looks like.”
Maryland’s construction industry will also need to prepare for much greater deployment of renewable energy installations.
“On a building-by-building basis, achieving net zero isn’t going to be feasible for every project,” said Sean Soboloski, Sustainability and Building Performance Project Manager at James Posey Associates. “If you have a high energy use building, like a laboratory, where the EUI [energy use intensity] is over 100, you can’t put enough solar on the roof… As we incrementally step our way towards net zero carbon emissions, there is going to be a point where technology is only going to get us so far in decreasing consumption. To really achieve our emissions goal, it will come down to offsets.”
In part, those offsets could be achieved by covering numerous, large rooftops in solar panels for either solar power purchase agreements (PPAs) or community solar projects. But to achieve that, the energy and construction industries will need to educate building owners on what kind of buildings make suitable sites.
“As an owner-operator of a solar array, the biggest challenge for us is finding a rooftop that will last 20-plus years,” Rick Kilbourne, Senior Manager of Luminace, said at the BC&E Construction Blueprint webinar.
Many old schools and other buildings with new roofs, however, make excellent sites for solar, he said.
“While there are plenty of rooftops up and down the I-95 corridor in Maryland for us to try to take advantage of from a net metering or community solar perspective, to have a chance of hitting the 2045 goal, we have to start looking at utility-scale installations,” Kilbourne added.
Consequently, more construction companies will need to develop expertise in solar installations. James Crisafulli, Division Manager at Rosendin Electric, said that expertise includes the ability to thoroughly assess site conditions and building structures for solar installations, assess electrical infrastructure onsite (including the size of the service, age of switch gear and whether a site has bi-directional breakers), and the dependability and bankability to execute a big ticket, high speed project.