It can be easy to think of smoke-spewing factories as the energy hogs spinning our climate out of control, but when it comes to the sheer amount of electricity used in the U.S., the real problem is housing. Residential buildings are the most electricity-consumptive sector in the country. Throw in commercial buildings like stores and offices, and buildings account for nearly 75% of the nation’s electricity usage.
So when climate-conscious technocrats think about reducing electricity use, they often think about buildings. That’s why significant funding to improve energy efficiency in buildings is a major element of the infrastructure bill just approved by the House of Representatives.
The $1 trillion bill in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan has dedicated about $5 billion to a wide range of programs geared to reduce electricity use in buildings, improve the materials used to build them, and train more people to design, build, and maintain energy-efficient buildings.
These are crucial investments, according to Narada Golden, VP and leader of built ecology at the global engineering company WSP USA. “If the U.S. is going to lead on climate, our buildings will need to be twice as efficient as they are today. They will also need to be powered by clean renewable energy sources,” Golden says. “Accelerating innovation in low-carbon buildings through deep energy retrofits and building electrification are critical steps toward creating the clean energy economy of the future.”
The bill funds a spectrum of programs to solve problems that range from drafty windows in affordable housing complexes to aging air ducts in schools to outdated building codes.
The biggest chunk of funding focused on buildings is a $3.5 billion infusion into what’s known as the weatherization assistance program. Aimed at dwellings owned or occupied by people with low incomes, the program provides funding to upgrade residences with better insulation, windows, roofing, and heating and cooling devices. Improving a home’s ability to stay warm in winter or cool in summer directly impacts how much energy it requires, so seemingly minor improvements like a properly sealed window can result in collectively sizable energy savings.
Another preexisting program that’s getting a large pool of money from the infrastructure bill is the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, a funding tool used by local governments to issue grants for energy retrofits. The infrastructure bill dedicates $550 million to the program for the next fiscal year, creating a large and somewhat amorphous pool of money that local governments can draw from. The bill also sets aside $500 million for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements at public schools, which can include everything from replacing outdated HVAC systems to installing infrastructure to charge electric vehicles.
One of the less-flashy parts of the bill may be one of its most impactful. A $225 million grant program is being established to help understaffed and underfunded local governments upgrade their building codes. The wonky workhorses of green building, building energy codes can have a huge impact on what is required when a new building is proposed in a city or town. Outdated codes may be allowing energy-sucking buildings to rise in place of more efficient ones. The new grant program aims to help get codes updated to the most recent energy-efficiency standards. “This starts to address the fact that we need national consistency in these codes,” says Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable design at the global architecture firm HOK.
Smaller pots of funding are also trying to carve new pathways to energy efficiency and more sustainable building. A $10 million program will provide funding to higher-education institutions to establish centers where students can learn how to assess and maintain energy efficiency in buildings. A $50 million program will support the use of energy-efficient construction materials in buildings used by nonprofits, helping improve the resiliency of low-income organizations while also spurring research into low-carbon building materials.
“Investing in the research and development of materials that are low embodied carbon but also have better energy efficiency is dual purpose,” Landreneau says. “When we develop more efficient materials to build with, that’s energy security.” But despite what she calls “a good start,” Landreneau and others argue the bill doesn’t go far enough.
“There are a number of good buildings provisions in there but it’s limited in its impact. It’s not something that’s going to have a transformational impact on the building sector,” says Ben Evans, federal legislative director at the U.S. Green Building Council, which runs the LEED green building certification system. “Buildings are responsible for 40% of carbon emissions in the U.S. We’re not going to meet our climate goals unless we do more about buildings.”
Evans points to the $500 million dedicated to energy improvements at schools, a pool of money that’s pegged to last for five years. In the original announcement of the Build Back Better plan, a sum of $100 billion was slated for school modernization. “Stretched across 50 states, $500 million doesn’t go very far,” Evans says.
Much was cut from the plan as it worked its way through the Senate and House. Evans says this is to be expected, but he’s hopeful that some of the cut programs and funding will see the light of day when Congress takes up its next focus: the social spending plan in the reconciliation bill. Evans says his organization and others are now campaigning to ensure that some of these cut programs get more attention—and more funding—than they did in the infrastructure bill.
“It’s a great first step,” Evans says. “But Congress also needs to finish the job.”