Efforts to boost energy efficiency during the COVID-19 pandemic: Part 1

Local initiatives to reduce energy waste

Brynn Furey

Our energy conservation and efficiency intern Olivia LaRoche writes about local efforts to boost efficiency and save energy across the country. 

The coronavirus pandemic has altered our world in many ways, including how America consumes energy. Most notably, U.S. energy consumption has dramatically increased since last March. Some of this upsurge is because practices haven’t changed — nearly empty office buildings still have the same levels of lighting and ventilation in place as they did before everyone started working from home. Another part of the problem is that practices have changed. Whereas before COVID-19, kids sat in school in front of a real-life teacher, now they are plugging away at laptops for remote learning alongside their parents, making home electrical meters spin wildly. Meanwhile gas-powered space heaters have been installed at countless restaurants in an effort to lure customers into outdoor dining settings. These practices may outlast the pandemic and their consequences are already proving detrimental to our environment’s health. 

Fortunately, there is an LED light at the end of the tunnel. Government officials, organizations and public service companies are finding ways to encourage and facilitate energy efficiency at all levels of decision-making. Over the next few weeks, I will be highlighting those efforts in a series of blogs. The goal: to help us identify spots of hope for reducing energy waste despite our current circumstances.

This week, I will be diving into local energy efficiency initiatives taking place from Oakland to Washington, D.C. to show how communities across America have bolstered energy efficiency efforts that will move us towards a greener and healthier world.

Building electrification and efficiency initiatives

In California, the Oakland City Council voted in early December to require new buildings to be all-electric. The council’s decision is significant because it’s an acknowledgment that a full transition to electric power in new builds will allow us to reduce energy waste, lower harmful air pollution and harness renewable energy sources. Oakland is the 39th jurisdiction in California to set a rule preventing new buildings from being powered by gas or other fossil fuels. Going all-electric is not only good for the environment, but it’s also a win for consumers since all-electric homes are now less expensive to build than mixed-fuel homes in every region of the country.

Similarly, St. Louis established the first building energy performance standards in the Midwest. The second-largest city in Missouri is the fourth U.S. jurisdiction — following New York City, Washington D.C. and Washington state — to make this commitment. This new policy, which will greatly increase the city’s energy savings, will require certain existing municipal, commercial, institutional and multifamily residential buildings to slash their energy use through efficiency initiatives.

Down south in Florida, Miami-Dade County’s Office of Resilience has implemented Building Efficiency 305 (BE305), which is a program that aims to promote energy efficiency through training and educational resources. Its goal is to reduce waste in existing public and private buildings by increasing water and electricity system efficiency. In fact, once approved, a new building performance ordinance will expand this effort’s reach by requiring some of the largest buildings in the county to report their energy use as well over the next five years. With a better understanding of building energy uses, we can analyze that data and get to work modernizing energy infrastructure, cutting operational costs and reducing wasteful energy consumption.

Miami waterfront skyline. By Gaetano Cessati.

Rebates & retrofits

Financial mechanisms are critical for making the investment in energy efficient infrastructure more affordable and accessible to people, businesses and other institutions. These policies exist all across the country and a few have persisted and even continued to expand despite the many challenges posed by the coronavirus. 

After initially suspending services because of COVID-19, New York City’s Retrofit Accelerator Program is back up and running. The program’s goal is to ensure that energy efficiency is a key part of the city’s goal to reduce overall emissions by 80 percent over the next 30 years. It offers free financial and technical advice along with educational resources to make it easier for building owners, operators and tenants to retrofit buildings with such energy-saving technologies as electric heating and water systems, energy-efficient lighting and solar installation.

Some local public utility companies are also doing their part by adding or updating rebate programs to make it easier for their customers to improve their home’s energy efficiency. For instance, two companies in Minnesota, Brainerd Public Utilities and Minnesota Power, are offering a variety of rebate programs for upgrades. Homeowners, as well as commercial, agricultural and industrial customers, are being offered rebates to help pay for changes like new efficient, electric appliances and air or ground source heat pump installations.

Appliance efficiency standards

Washington, D.C. may be the next place to enact appliance efficiency standards. Last month, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to update appliance efficiency standards for 17 products from air purifiers to showerheads. It still has a few more steps to go, but the U.S. capital could reap important environmental and health benefits by passing this measure. By 2025, the standards would save enough energy to power 15,000 D.C. homes annually and cut greenhouse gas emissions equal to taking 5,400 cars off of the road each year. That would mean cleaner and healthier air for Washingtonians to breathe.

Appliance efficiency standards would save enough water to meet the annual needs of 15,000 D.C. households. Part of the D.C. appliance standards flip book. By Graham Marema.

To say these measures matter is an understatement. Energy efficiency is critical to the health and prosperity of our communities and environment. Local initiatives are important, and we can complement them through our own individual work to reduce energy waste. Together, we can ensure that we use energy as efficiently as possible for a more sustainable and greener future.  


Brynn Furey

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