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Inside Innovation: Electrification of buildings a plausible GHG-reduction strategy

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Electrification of buildings a plausible GHG-reduction strategy

With the United States back onboard with the Paris Agreement, Canada is under pressure to meet the international goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 C by 2050. Like it or not, big GHG emitters like buildings will be targeted.

The 1.5 degree pathway is not only about new construction. It also means “greening” older, existing buildings.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given owners time and opportunity to re-evaluate existing assets with a view to refitting and repurposing. However, upgrades and improvements should be more than superficial changes. 

There’s an opportunity to reduce operational energy consumption. This not only appeals to tenants at a time when climate change is front page news, but also represents an investment that can pay returns to the bottom line.

It’s all doable. An international study published in October 2020 addresses the global building sector and what’s required to reduce emissions in buildings in order to achieve climate targets. It finds the technologies and skills needed already exist today.

The 1 Triton Square project in London, U.K. shows what can be achieved.

“The key environmental challenge for 1 Triton Square was to take an existing building from the 1990s and create a new space with double the floor area in a sustainable way,” explains a description.  

Rather than demolishing and rebuilding, this top-to-bottom renovation saved 35,000 tons of concrete and allowed the reuse of 2,000 tons of steel.

On a pure operational level, electrification is seen as one way to make significant progress in terms of reducing carbons and GHGs. Some North American cities are showing leadership in advance of any federal, state or provincial regulations. For example, New York City’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act includes the goal of 100 per cent zero-emission electricity by 2040 and 85 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050.

According to McKinsey Global, the CO2 emissions from buildings represent seven per cent of the global total. A move away from natural gas, fuel oil and coal towards electrification in residences and commercial buildings could reduce heating emissions by 20 per cent from 2016 levels, assuming the electricity comes from clean sources.

Electrification of existing buildings is a major financial commitment and managing energy use efficiently thereafter requires data in the form of Energy Management Information Systems (EMIS). However, once part of the building’s operational maintenance system, EMIS can lead to an energy-optimized building with a measurable return on investment for the owner.

A subset of EMIS is the concept of Real Time Energy Management (RTEM), a program financially supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. RTEM continuously collects live and historical performance data through cloud-based platforms, providing data that can be analyzed to uncover optimization opportunities.

The program reimburses such investments as sub-metering, thereby bringing tenants into the energy reduction process by incentivizing them to reduce unnecessary plug load, and after hours heating, cooling and lighting. These and other energy load reduction “scores” can be measured and then displayed in the tenant’s main lobby, spurring competitive instincts and making energy reduction a bit of a contest between building occupants.

Unfortunately, large financial commitments can sometimes result in a piecemeal, one-thing-at-a-time approach to expensive energy upgrades like electrification and automated EMIS. The biggest energy draws such as heating, lighting and cooling will often top the to-do list.

The problem is while these energy demands can, in fact, total over 50 per cent of the overall energy use, they fluctuate over the four seasons. Furthermore, their interrelationship is complex, making any realized savings more difficult to understand, especially when the ongoing energy demands accounting for the other 50 per cent are ignored.

Energy advisers suggest that building owners take a “whole system approach,” using BIM-based modelling to guide the retrofitting and electrification of systems.

Canada lags behind when it comes to addressing GHGs in a meaningful way and needs to take action. Large scale electrification of buildings might be a route to consider.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to

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