Connecticut losing ground on building emissions despite efficiency programs

Connecticut energy efficiency climate change
Climate activists say Connecticut needs to end incentives for energy-efficient natural gas heating.(Credit: JJBers / Creative Commons)

By Lisa Prevost, Energy News Network

Climate activists say the state’s progress on reducing building emissions has been far too slow given the pace of the climate crisis, and that it needs to end incentives for energy-efficient natural gas heating.

Greenhouse gas emissions from heating and cooling buildings continue to rise in Connecticut despite the state’s efforts to improve energy efficiency.

An annual greenhouse gas inventory released last week for 2018 — the latest available data — showed vehicle exhaust remains the state’s largest problem, but the sharpest year-over-year increase came in the residential sector. Commercial building emissions were also higher.

The report attributes the increases to greater cold-weather heating demand, but climate activists underscore the state’s lack of progress on building emissions, which are roughly the same as they were a decade ago. They say the state lags on the adoption of electric heat pumps relative to the rest of New England, continues to expand its natural gas infrastructure, and doesn’t allow municipalities to adopt more stringent efficiency standards for new buildings. 

Just one day after the emissions report was released, the state’s Energy Efficiency Board approved the next round of ratepayer-funded energy efficiency incentives, and despite pleas not to do so, included subsidies to entice homeowners to switch from oil heating to high-efficiency natural gas furnaces. Activists met the news with incredulity.

“Continuing to subsidize polluting fossil fuels defies logic,” said Shannon Laun, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, in a statement. “If Connecticut continues subsidizing gas heating, the state will not meet its climate goals and our communities will suffer.”

Connecticut’s Global Warming Solutions Act calls for a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and 80% by 2050. While the state has made progress in reducing emissions from the electricity sector, last week’s report from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection concluded that the overall 42.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted in Connecticut in 2018 was up 2.7% from 2017. 

The transportation sector represents the largest share of emissions, at 15.8 metric tons. Between 2014 and 2018, transportation emissions rose by 3%, the report said. 

While building emissions represented a lower overall share, the residential sector saw an 18% rise in emissions from fuel oil and a 9.8% rise in emissions from natural gas. 

Commercial building emissions rose 10.8% for natural gas and 6.6% for fuel oil. https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/4gvwU/1/#amp=1

The findings suggest the state is going to have to amp up its efforts in these areas if it is to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, including implementing the Transportation and Climate Initiative and authorizing municipalities to adopt energy “stretch” codes for large buildings, the agency said. Both of those measures failed to make it through the last legislative session.

While there are some signs of progress in reducing building emissions, especially around improving energy efficiency in affordable housing, advocates say it’s far too slow in coming given the pace of the climate crisis.

“I’m not seeing very much in the way of a change in the standard way of doing business in Connecticut, which is just continuing to do things the way they’ve been done for the last several decades,” said Bruce Becker, a Westport-based developer who specializes in highly efficient building projects and is converting a former office building in New Haven into what could be the country’s first net-zero-energy hotel. “Public utilities are still sending out mailers to get people to convert to natural gas, which is not helping.”

‘It’s complicated’

The energy efficiency plan just approved by the oversight board — officially known as the Conservation and Load Management Plan — is the latest iteration of Energize Connecticut, the utility-run program that offers an array of rebates and incentives aimed at driving greater building efficiency.

It still awaits a sign-off from Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes. Activists representing about 20 environmental and clean energy groups submitted a letter to Dykes last month calling on her to remove all fossil fuel subsidies from the plan. 

“There was a lot more public participation and scrutiny of the plan this time than in years past,” said Charles Rothenberger, climate and energy attorney for Save the Sound. “There was also a much more concerted effort on the part of the advocacy community to draw attention to the proceedings.”

Amy McLean, the Connecticut director for the Acadia Center, sits on the Energy Efficiency Board. While she said she agrees that fossil fuel incentives should be removed, “it’s complicated.” Putting a “hard stop” on incentives for high-efficiency gas furnaces right now would mean more people would simply purchase less efficient equipment. And the incentives for electric heat pumps are not high enough to make them affordable for most people.

“All ratepayers pay into this program — they have to get something back,” she said.

One change she does think could be made immediately is removing incentives for gas equipment in new construction.

“New construction should not be incentivizing anything but electrification,” McLean said. 

Activists want more resources put into switching customers over to heat pumps, which can be used for heating and cooling. The plan does say that the companies will “prioritize transitioning customers” to air-source heat pumps and ground-source heat pumps, and will do more educational outreach. But Rothenberger is skeptical. 

“We know what the practice has been,” he said. “The language is all very aspirational and vague.” 

Connecticut has a lot of catching up to do compared to other New England states, said Bernie Pelletier, vice president of People’s Action for Clean Energy. He cited figures from the 2021 heating electrification forecast by ISO New England, the regional grid operator. The report projects that roughly 4% of Connecticut households will have air-source heat pumps by 2030, compared to 11% in Rhode Island and 23% in Massachusetts.

But Will Healey, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said the numbers the agency provided to ISO for that forecast did not factor in the impact of increased heat pump incentives over the last couple of years and additional educational outreach efforts. 

The department “will be further developing approaches to thermal decarbonization, including rapid deployment of efficient electric heat pumps,” he said.

Efficiency success stories

On the positive side, Connecticut is making progress in improving efficiency in affordable housing, said Melissa Kops, an architect and a board member of the Connecticut Green Building Council. The state agency that provides financing for affordable housing developments just revised its review process to give more weight to applications for highly sustainable projects, she said. 

And last session, lawmakers approved a bill establishing a grant fund to pay for energy efficiency upgrades, including solar panels, and weatherization in affordable housing and other landlord-owned housing units. The funds can also be used to mitigate health and safety barriers, like mold and asbestos, that impede efficiency work from being done.

In addition, the state’s first net-zero energy schools are under construction in Mansfield and Manchester. And then there is the emergence of cutting-edge commercial building projects like Becker’s Hotel Marcel, scheduled for completion early next year, and in Norwalk, a new flooring company headquarters being touted as the greenest building in Connecticut. 

HMTX Industries, a family of companies that specialize in luxury vinyl tile and plank flooring, is building a 24,000-square-foot structure designed to be net-positive for the environment. On the energy side, it will produce all the energy it needs from solar panels, use about 60% less energy than similar buildings due to an ultra-efficient envelope, and maximize natural daylighting and passive cooling. 

A major supplier to Home Depot, the company’s warehouse and operations facilities in Georgia are also built to highly efficient standards. 

“We take pride in being a successful leader in sustainability in the industry,” said CEO Harlan Stone. 

Energize Connecticut offers technical expertise and financial incentives for net-zero-energy commercial building projects. Eversource, the state’s largest electric distribution company, has eight projects currently participating, compared to just two in 2019, said Ron Araujo, director of energy efficiency implementation.

In their new construction incentive program, “we are seeing many commercial buildings come through and aim to become much more efficient than the current building code.”

The company’s annual conference on net-zero commercial buildings, scheduled for Sept. 23, has more than 200 participants registered this year, almost five times as many as when it started in 2017, he said.T

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