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October 12, 2020

Arlington Carbon Neutrality Goal by 2050: failure without local energy building code and tighter controls over demolition of existing houses

Development,environment — @ 3:20 pm

In 2019, the Arlington County Board approved the Community Energy Plan with a significant environmental goal that Arlington County become carbon neutral in energy use by 2050.  Nearly two-thirds of the 2.0 million metric ton carbon reduction would occur through de-carbonization of the electricity supply and changing all transportation to electric vehicles.  However, de-carbonization by itself alone cannot achieve carbon neutrality unless building energy efficiency is greatly increased and significant amount of local renewable energy production occurs (solar and geothermal energy).

The CEP set a goal that 23 percent of the 2.0 million metric tons of carbon reduction would come from local actions—11 percent from local renewable energy production and 12 percent from improving local buildings’ energy efficiency.  The county must adopt its own energy building code that requires new or renovated buildings to include state-of-the-art energy technology so that new buildings are mostly carbon neutral.  The county government should pass a restrictive energy building code, and then seek permission from the General Assembly to implement it.  The State building code is woefully inadequate and energy inefficient, as compared to most other Northeastern states.

New buildings should be required as part of the building code to add solar and geo-thermal energy.  Thus, Arlington could produce a significant amount of energy locally and not have to rely on the grid to bring in electricity produced elsewhere from solar or wind energy.   The grid cannot supply enough electricity to compensate for the loss of natural gas for heating.

Commercial buildings use 35 percent of local carbon emissions.  In the past, the county mainly encouraged energy efficiency in new commercial buildings through a subsidy program based on a bogus LEED, Energy Star or similar energy rating systems that do not significantly cut carbon emissions.  Academic research has now concluded that LEED and Energy Star and similar energy rating systems do not significantly reduce primary energy use in certified buildings. Marketing claims of 20-30 percent or more decline in carbon use in LEED buildings are bogus.

Arlington County has no data to confirm that the over 80 commercial buildings in Arlington with 37 million square feet that obtained LEED or Energy Star local subsidies used less energy than comparable non-certified buildings in the county.  The county should require as part of the CEP that all commercial property owners annually report use of water, electricity and gas or fuel for heating by building. 

Residential buildings.–About 23 percent of carbon emissions in the county in 2016 came from residential buildings; about half of the residential use was in detached or attached single family houses, and the other half was in multifamily housing.   There are about 28,500 detached single family houses and 11,200 attached single family houses in Arlington in 2019, according to the Arlington County Office of Planning, Housing and Development.  Many of the houses in the county were built in the 1950s and 60s or earlier and are energy inefficient. 

The county government should fund a program to give $1,000 to homeowners to weatherize and retrofit their older energy-inefficient houses.  Basic weatherization and energy refits that cost generally under $5,000 can reduce a typical house’s energy use by up to 20 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.  With more substantial and expensive energy upgrades, such as solar panels and solar hot water heaters, the energy use in existing houses in Arlington could be cut by well over 570 percent and very close to carbon neutrality.

Tear downs of existing houses in Arlington pose a major obstacle to having carbon neutral housing.   The tear down of an existing house and the building of a completely new conventional house typically uses about 50 m tons of carbon.  A new house in Arlington is often twice or three times larger in living space than the demolished house.  Since energy use is directly proportional to square footage, the new larger house built under current building codes will use at least twice as much energy although energy efficiency in the new building can cut perhaps 30 percent use.  Nevertheless, each older house demolished and replaced raises energy use by at least one hundred percent.

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