The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden administration announces new Energy Star standards, plans for emissions targets for federal buildings

The plans include the first sustainability benchmarks for federal buildings and programs promoting electric heat pumps

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm speaks outside the West Wing of the White House this month. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

On Monday afternoon, the Biden administration announced a major push aimed at cutting carbon emissions from federal buildings and from homes by setting new efficiency standards and investing in innovative research.

The White House said that, for the first time, the government will develop “building performance standards” for federal facilities. It will also establish new Energy Star standards for heat pumps and invest in programs meant to boost adoption of the potentially emissions-saving technology.

“I think the building sector is often overlooked for the tremendous potential it presents,” said Ali Zaidi, the deputy national climate adviser at the White House. “We’ve turned on approaches all over the government to chase that opportunity.”

The moves — which occurred across the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Council on Environmental Quality and the General Services Administration — are part of the White House’s ambitious climate agenda, which calls for the United States to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. And unlike some administration initiatives, such as the Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard, these changes shouldn’t require congressional approval.

Biden’s infrastructure plan aims to turbocharge U.S. shift from fossil fuels

The White House has not yet set a timeline for developing building performance standards or released any specific benchmarks, saying only that it plans to “establish metrics, targets, and tracking methods to reach federal carbon emissions goals” for federal buildings. Some state and local jurisdictions (such as New York and Washington state) have adopted building performance standards — and fossil fuel industry groups have pushed back against such efforts.

Last month, when Biden committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, American Gas Association president and chief executive Karen Harbert responded that the industry “will continue to collaborate with local policymakers, federal regulators, Congress and this administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through smart innovation, new and modernized infrastructure, and advanced technologies.”

Steven Nadel, the executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, says the administration’s move will put the federal government among the leaders in this area. “It will help reduce the federal bill, which is good,” said Nadel. “It will also encourage other jurisdictions to consider them.”

The battle over climate change is boiling over on the home front

The new Energy Star standards are expanding to include electric-vehicle chargers in commercial settings and a cold-climate designation for heat pumps, which are used to heat or cool homes and buildings. Nadel said that when Energy Star guidelines are adjusted, “manufactures tend to respond with products that meet those standards.”

“The need for heat pumps is clear,” said Jeffrey Schub, the executive director of the Coalition for Green Capital, an organization aiming to accelerate investment in clean-energy technologies. “Electric heat pumps are the key central technology for decarbonizing buildings, especially households.”

Heat pumps most commonly work by drawing in warm air and then either circulating it to heat a home or expelling it to cool it. That transfer process is generally much more efficient than boilers, furnaces, radiators or other traditional heating systems, which directly warm the air.

While exact energy reductions depend on a number of factors, such as the underlying electricity grid or building insulation, a Sierra Club analysis found that replacing a gas furnace and water heater with an electric heat pump could reduce a household’s heating emissions by more than 45 percent over a decade. Heat pump technology can also be used to heat water two to four times more efficiently than a conventional water heater.

“Heat pumps have a tremendous opportunity,” said Adam Zurofsky, the executive director of Rewiring America, a nonprofit trying to move the United States toward electrification. A Rewiring America and Coalition for Green Capital report released Monday found that by switching to heat pumps for space or water heating, 65 million U.S. households could save a total of as much as $27.2 billion a year.

And, Zurofsky added, “if heat pumps are getting more efficient, that can only be better.”

New York’s most famous skyscraper shrank its planet-warming emissions by 40 percent. Can the rest of the city do the same?

Heat pumps have some drawbacks. For example, they operate less efficiently in colder climates, though the technology has improved in recent years; the Energy Department is launching a cold-climate heat pump challenge to help further gains in that space. One of the biggest hurdles to heat pump adoption, though, is the upfront costs — a problem that the administration has proposed addressing through a “clean energy accelerator” program. But that would need congressional approval.

The EPA on Monday also announced a new home upgrade program to boost efficiency and electrification retrofits.

Still, Mark Kresowik, regional director for the Sierra Club, notes that heat pump adoption has been “increasing rapidly.” According to 2015 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 10 percent of U.S. housing units used heat pumps. As of 2017, the Census Bureau reported that 41 percent of new homes in the United States included heat pumps.

But Kresowik says the movement could be going even faster. “It’s time to dramatically accelerate deployment and support for heat pumps.”

The White House also announced a $10 million investment in research and adoption of heat pump technology, as well as a partnership with the New Buildings Institute to accelerate adoption of heat pump water heaters. According to the organization, U.S. households would save nearly 100 million tons of carbon emissions every year by using heat pump water heaters.

Smita Gupta, the New Buildings Institute director for building innovation, says the administration’s support will help build on a program that has already found success on the West Coast.

“Bringing it to the national stage,” she said, “you impact the entire country.”