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September 7, 2023

Arlington community energy plan far short of goals during 2012-21, and carbon neutral buildings only way to ending carbon 2050

Community discussion, Sept. 6, 2023

Welcome to all in attendance tonight and a special thanks to Scott Sklar, and Demetra McBride.  Delegate Patrick Hope was going to speak tonight, but had to attend emergency session of the General Assembly in Richmond.

Our purpose tonight is to provide more information to Arlington residents about how the county can get to a carbon neutral future by 2050 as the county board determined as our goal in 2019.  Over the past decades, advances in building materials and solar and geothermal heating and cooling, and design have made it possible to build and operate homes and commercial buildings that are truly carbon neutral. 

It is far cheaper to build such buildings new rather than attempt to renovate, and thus critical to start with a carbon neutral design.  About one percent of existing buildings and homes are demolished or substantially remodeled every year, and thus over the next 30 years or so, all existing homes and buildings will be torn down or remodeled in Arlington.

Goal set in the CEP for carbon reduction:  36% drop during 2012-21

The county community energy plan (CEP) adopted in 2019 gave details on energy use in the county and some approaches to getting to carbon neutrality.  The CEP indicated that about 62 percent of carbon emissions in the county come from buildings, both residential and commercial, publicly and privately owned.  The focus must be on buildings if we are to get to neutrality at all.  The transport sector with electric cars and hybrids is fast advancing, and that is a sector completely outside the county government’s power to influence.

The CEP indicated that in 2012 carbon use per capita in the county was 11.3 metric tons; the goal was that carbon use by 2021 would drop by 36 percent.  In other words, in ten years, carbon use should drop by 36 percent if the 2050 goal of zero carbon is to be reached.  This is shown in the figure:  the CEP goal starting in 2012 index is 100, and by 2021 the index should drop to 64.

Actual carbon use in buildings in county dropped by 11% in 2012-21

In 2012, there were 1,780,000 metric tons of operating carbon used in buildings in Arlington in the form of electricity and natural gas.  By 2021, carbon use in buildings fell to 1,586,000 tons or by 11 percent.

As shown in the figure, the index for actual carbon use in buildings was 100 in 2012 and then fell to 89 in 2021.   Over these ten years, actual carbon use in buildings fell by 11 percent or by about 1 percent annually.   At this rate of decline, carbon neutrality will not be reached for 90 years or 60 years too late and the Planet fried.

County government influence to cut carbon use in buildings

The county government including schools) uses only a trivial amount (4 percent) of carbon in the county, and it has reduced its carbon use particularly in new school buildings that are carbon neutral like Discovery Elementary.  As far as influencing private builders, the county government has green building program based on LEED or Energy Star ratings that provide modest subsidies to new buildings that marginally cut carbon emissions.  Independent studies of these green building indexes indicate carbon reductions are quite modest or even trivial.  These are simply too little and too ineffective to rapidly cut carbon use in new commercial buildings. The county has no effective subsidy program for new or existing homes.

The most powerful tool the county has potentially to affect energy use in buildings is the building code for new buildings and homes.  The code is unfortunately in Virginia controlled by a state building committee in Richmond. 

This committee and most of the Virginia state government have resisted energy efficiency improvements to this code in part because of the pressure from gas and electric companies that will lose sales and because of the resistance of builders to change and innovation.  Energy conservation and carbon neutrality upgrades do add to the initial cost of the building, but this is more than offset by lower utility costs during the lifetime of the property. 

It is unlikely that Virginia will adopt a carbon neutral building code for the whole state and thus Arlington must get some control over the building code or carbon neutrality will never happen.  Other Northern Virginis jurisdictions could act as well to have a regional carbon neutral building industry with 3 million residents.