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What Is Decarbonization and What Does It Mean for HVAC Systems?

Reading time: 3 minutes

From cars to leaf blowers, the country is seeing a major shift from gas-powered equipment to electric in an effort to reduce our carbon footprint. And buildings are no exception.

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If you subscribe to any industry newsletters, you’ve likely seen the word “decarbonization” a lot lately. It’s the current target in the design and construction industry as practitioners seek out any and all ways to reduce the environmental impact buildings have on the environment.

And it’s for good reason: According to Architecture 2030, the built environment accounts for nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions—28% from building operations and 11% from materials and construction.

Decarbonization “encompasses the reduction of both operational carbon and embodied carbon, which refer to carbon emissions in the use stage and over the entire life cycle of a building respectively," explains ArchDaily.

The publication explores 10 strategies architecture can use to decarbonize, including prioritizing energy efficiency, the simultaneous consideration of operational and embodied carbon for new and retrofit projects, and approaching decarbonization from the outset of the project. 

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Carbon Regulation

Countries around the world are setting aggressive goals to reduce their carbon footprints, Canada and the U.S. among them—both countries have committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “Achieving net-zero emissions means our economy either emits no greenhouse gas emissions or offsets its emissions, for example, through actions such as tree planting or employing technologies that can capture carbon before it is released into the air,” the Canadian government said. “This is essential to keeping the world safe and livable for our kids and grandkids.”

States within the U.S., most notably California and New York, are enacting decarbonization regulations in an effort to phase out fossil fuels that contribute to carbon emissions, and many of those efforts include buildings. In California, for example, which is targeting carbon neutrality by 2045, building electrification is part of a multipronged strategy, ACHR News reports.

“Each building electrified today has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30% to 60% in most cases, compared to mix fuel design, where buildings are powered by both electricity and natural gas,” the magazine explained.

Of course, HVAC can play a critical role in building decarbonization by moving away from gas-fired appliances to the primary use of all-electric options such as heat pumps. “Heat pump space heaters are three to five times more efficient and heat pump water heaters are two to four times more efficient than typical gas burning and electric resistance units,” ACHR said.

School districts are a key target. In Los Angeles, electrifying heating and ventilation is part of its efforts. In New York, where the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act requires a reduction in economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030 and no less than 85% by 2050 from 1990 levels, schools are moving away from centralized gas boilers to decentralized heat pumps.

HVAC Solutions

Another way of reducing carbon footprint is switching to inverter compressors or variable-speed compressors, which eliminate the electrical jump from powering on and off. Variable-speed compressors stay on but modulates to avoid peak-load jumps.

For more on this topic, check out “Building a Foundation for Building Decarbonization” in ASHRAE Journal.

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