February 8, 2022 | Jake Duncan

On Friday, January 21, 2022, President Biden and the White House announced the National Building Performance Coalition, a group of 33 cities, counties, and state governments that IMT is supporting to generate community-driven, holistic building performance policies.

The power sector, including utilities, will be essential to achieving desired outcomes. As we explained in our blog series “Stronger Together,” we need intersectional and coordinated action across buildings, utilities, real estate and regulators to equitably and rapidly decarbonize the built environment. Utilities already play a critical role in a clean, and just, energy transition. Building performance standards (BPS) present an opportunity to encourage utilities to share data, incorporate buildings as assets into their planning processes, and offer policy compliance support. This blog examines what that might look like.

Utilities need to center equity in their operations and planning

Utilities have an obligation to ensure affordable service and should therefore strive to reduce energy burden among their customers and empower local visions of energy justice. Several organizations are hard at work to galvanize energy equity action from utilities – including the Institute for Energy Justice, the Energy Equity Project, the Energy Democracy Initiative, and many more. Starting places for utilities working on equitable building decarbonization include:

  • Develop definitions and metrics to track energy justice with local communities
  • Commit to meaningful community engagement
  • Prioritize reducing energy burden
  • Include human-centered benefits in analysis and planning
  • Ensure electrification and distributed energy resources benefit and are available to underserved populations
  • Include equity indicators in mapping exercises

Utilities need to leverage data access for performance metrics to monitor equitable grid decarbonization

Building performance data is critical to setting performance metrics for a BPS and understanding the impacts the grid has on the people it serves. Benchmarking goes a long way towards creating better data access and transparency for building performance. However, Coalition members should rethink data access to achieve more granular data access and use the data to address inequity.

  1. To leverage buildings as grid assets, utilities need to record a concept of buildings within their IT systems. Currently, utilities think in terms of meters, not buildings. When buildings are equipped with distributed energy resources and can help the grid operate efficiently, everyone benefits. One possible solution, which some jurisdictions are pursuing, is to use BPS metrics for grid-related performance.
  2. Building performance data can be combined with demographic and equity-focused data to understand the intersection of human needs and decarbonization investments to maximize the restorative justice of both building improvements and grid investments. For example, the Greenlink Equity Map (GEM) visualizes energy burden data, and Portland General Electric is in the process of combining the GEM map with grid data to prioritize human-centered grid investments. 

Utilities must consider the impact of BPS in their resource and distribution planning

Building performance standards are poised to drive big changes in energy performance across billions of square feet. Utilities should quickly incorporate the impacts of these policies in their resource and distribution planning.

As utilities plan how they build or acquire resources to meet future demand, they should consider how significant deployment of efficiency and electrification will change forecasted resource needs. For example, the City of Minneapolis submitted rigorous comments in Xcel Energy’s integrated resource plan highlighting how building improvements can help meet future resource needs.

Changes to building performance can also be an important factor in how utilities distribute energy. Sections of the grid are built to deliver power within a specific range so leaders need to factor in how demand might increase due to electrification or decrease through efficiency. For example, the District of Columbia argued that the utility load forecast justifying a $200+ million dollar distribution did not take into account efficiency improvements and so was unfounded. 

See our recent report – Participating in Power: How to Read and Respond to Integrated Resource Plans – for more on engaging in IRPs.

Utilities should invest more in buildings & utility regulators should encourage this

The distinction between the grid and customers is dissolving. While historically, customers simply bought energy from utilities, customers today are actively shaping the energy system as solar, battery storage, electric vehicles, and other customer-sited smart technology become commonplace. Utilities and their regulators need to acknowledge this and understand that they can’t stop their service or regulation at the meter anymore.

  • The state agencies that regulate utilities – known as Public Utility Commissions (PUC) – should consider buildings as part of the grid and encourage utilities to meet their obligations through building investments, especially as buildings become more grid-interactive.
  • Utilities should provide incentives and technical support to enable BPS compliance.
  • Utility leaders need to acknowledge the human impact of historical underinvestment in certain communities and focus their programs on reducing energy burden for these ratepayers.

Taking action on utility reform through building performance policies

If you are working on holistic building decarbonization policies, don’t stop at buildings. Policies like building performance standards can also be a gateway to advance other crucial and interrelated parts of an equitable clean energy transition. Here are some starting actions for local government and community members interested in this topic:

Local government

Ask your utility regulator to:

  • Require utilities to center equity and community input in their planning.
  • Establish standardized user-friendly data access rules that include granular, current and historic energy data and relevant equity data.
  • Require that utilities include building performance policy impacts to both the grid and communities in their resource and distribution system planning.
  • Open an exploratory process to understand the utility regulator’s role in equitable building decarbonization.

Ask your utilities to:

  • Center equity in their operations and planning and work to establish the conditions necessary to  allow for meaningful community engagement.
  • Include BPS impacts in their resource and distribution system planning.
  • Develop or expand programs to help building owners comply with BPS.
  • Develop or expand programs to address energy burden.

Community members

  • Review the People’s Utility Justice Playbook to understand the history of utilities and their intersection with equity. 
  • Participate in utility and PUC workshops, where possible. Consider partnering with local advocates to get up to speed quickly.
  • Advocate for more sustainable models of community engagement in utility regulation. For example, recent legislation in the state of Oregon establishes intervenor compensation for environmental justice organizations.
  • For those in National BPS Coalition jurisdictions, publicly elevate the needs of your community in policy design – as all participants in the coalition have committed to creating community-driven policy. Additionally, consider engaging with your utility and utility regulators directly or in public workshops.      

Reach out to Jake Duncan and Julia Eagles for more information on how building performance policies can be leveraged for broad equitable decarbonization.

Program Area(s):

Policy , Utilities

Meet the Author

Jake Duncan

Southeast Regulatory Director, Vote Solar and Former Senior Associate at IMT

Want to get regular updates from IMT?