The worlds of Biden's politics, Kim Stanley Robinson's hard science fiction, and our buildings are colliding together this winter with climate change.
President-Elect Biden’s plan for a “…Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and Equitable Clean Energy Future” reads as though he and his team had a preprint copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, the author’s newest effort to help readers feel the threat of climate change. Included in Biden’s plan are new performance standards in building codes for existing buildings and net-zero emissions legislation for new buildings, with the aim of cutting in half the carbon footprint from the country’s built environment by 2030.
“To get to that 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, they’re going to have to have a four-pronged approach and they’re going to have to do all four prongs in parallel,” – Cliff Majersik, director of market transformation at the Institute for Market Transformation
According to Cliff, the necessary paths are building electrification, demand management programs, expanding renewable energy resources, and improving building energy efficiency. 36% of our nation’s electricity use is in commercial buildings, a good bit of it is wasted. The Biden plan borrows from the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and that report’s references to existing plans for zero-emission electricity generation developed by New Mexico, New York, and others. It also references the role building codes play in dropping emissions:
This chart, produced by ACEEE on analysis from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, shows the simulated energy use from a building, averaged across types and regions, compared a similar building in the 1970s. The average U.S. building that met the 2013 commercial model energy code decreased its energy use by more than 35% compared to a similar building from 2003.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s future, climate change projects include drilling holes in Greenland’s glaciers to drain the melted water and slow their slide into the ocean, dyeing a new Arctic ocean yellow to stop it absorbing so much sunlight, and relying on solar-powered dirigibles for long distance travel. Meanwhile, central banks extend quantitative easing to the fight against climate change by issuing blockchained “carboni” coins that reward CO2 reductions.
In 2020, sustainability projects include Gridium’s energy retrofit at a historic office building in San Francisco that will drop annual energy costs by 15%. And instead of emission-related cryptocurrency, the utility is treating the building as though it were a wind turbine of energy efficiency and paying the building, in real-time and over time, for the efficiency resources it produces. While this virtual power plant doesn’t rely on cryptographic proofs of work, it does rely on new advances in applied mathematics – specifically, mathematical approaches for Normalized Metered Energy Consumption (NMEC) calculations, which are accurate and flexible enough so as to account for a non-routine event like shifts in occupancy due to COVID-19 scheduling.
The timing is certainly important – just one way of measuring this is the U.S. just had its fourth-hottest November across 126 years of records, Delaware and New Mexico had their second-hottest.