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The concept of building decarbonization, its components, benefits

The concept of building decarbonization

The concept of building decarbonization

In the fight against climate change, one of the most significant challenges we face is reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, such as natural gas, oil, and coal, not only contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions when extracted and used, but they are also non-renewable resources. Buildings, in particular, are major consumers of fossil fuels, primarily for heating purposes. The process of reducing or eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from a building's energy sources is known as building decarbonization. This article explores the concept of building decarbonization, its components, benefits, challenges, and ongoing initiatives in the field.

Understanding Building Decarbonization

Building decarbonization encompasses a series of strategies aimed at reducing or eliminating the carbon emissions associated with a building's energy consumption. By transitioning away from fossil fuel-based energy sources, we can significantly contribute to the global effort in mitigating climate change and achieving emission reduction goals. Upgrading millions of homes to rely on electricity instead of natural gas can result in a substantial reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to taking millions of cars off the road each year.

The Four Components of Building Decarbonization

Building decarbonization involves four main components that work together to achieve sustainable energy consumption:

1. Energy Efficiency

Improving energy efficiency is the first step towards building decarbonization. By making buildings more energy-efficient, we can minimize their overall energy demand, leading to reduced reliance on fossil fuels. Energy efficiency measures can include adding wall insulation to prevent heat loss, using energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, opting for ENERGY STAR certified appliances, and utilizing smart or programmable thermostats.

2. Electrification

Electrification plays a crucial role in building decarbonization by replacing fossil fuel-based equipment with electric alternatives. This involves switching from gas furnaces to electric heat pumps for heating and cooling purposes and replacing gas stoves with electric or induction stoves. Electrification eliminates direct reliance on fossil fuels and allows for a cleaner, more sustainable energy source for buildings.

3. Renewable Energy

Once a building has been electrified, the next step is to ensure that the electricity used comes from renewable energy sources. While electricity can still be generated from fossil fuels like coal, the aim is to transition towards renewable energy to avoid greenhouse gas emissions. Solar energy is a prime example of renewable energy that can be harnessed to power buildings in a sustainable manner.

4. Managed Electricity Loads

As more buildings transition to electric power, managing the increased demand for electricity becomes essential. To minimize the strain on the energy grid and further reduce carbon emissions, energy use can be shifted to different times of the day through smart grid programs. By implementing measures such as ComEd's Hourly Pricing, energy consumption can be optimized, leading to a more efficient and sustainable grid.

The Benefits of Building Decarbonization

Building decarbonization offers numerous benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions:

1. Climate Action

By eliminating carbon emissions from buildings, decarbonization efforts contribute significantly to climate action. Buildings account for a significant portion of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels for heating and hot water. Addressing this source of emissions is crucial in achieving emission reduction goals and mitigating climate change.

2. Managing Utility Costs

Transitioning to an all-electric home through building decarbonization can help manage utility costs. While both natural gas and electricity costs are projected to rise in the coming years, the increase in electricity costs is expected to be less significant. Electrification can lead to reduced energy costs, with estimates suggesting a potential savings of $377 per household.

3. Preserving Affordable Housing

The strategies involved in building decarbonization, such as energy efficiency and electrification, also contribute to preserving affordable housing. Upgrading buildings with energy-efficient measures reduces operating costs, making them more affordable for residents in the long run. These upgrades also enhance the resilience of affordable housing against rising energy costs and the impacts of climate change.

4. Healthy Housing and Improved Indoor Air Quality

Gas appliances that burn fossil fuels directly in homes can have detrimental effects on indoor air quality. The combustion process releases pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide, which can lead to respiratory issues, cardiovascular effects, and other health risks, particularly for children. Switching to electric appliances eliminates this source of indoor pollution, resulting in healthier indoor air quality and a safer living environment.

Building Decarbonization Initiatives in Action: The Case of La Paz Place

Building Decarbonization Initiatives in Action: The Case of La Paz Place

One example of building decarbonization in action is the partnership between Elevate and Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation at La Paz Place apartments in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. The project began in 2018 with energy efficiency upgrades, including air sealing, insulation, and LED lighting. In 2021, full electrification efforts commenced, with each household being equipped with high-efficiency electric heat pumps, programmable thermostats, and electric stoves. The next phase of the project aims to incorporate solar energy to power the buildings with clean and renewable electricity.

Challenges of Building Decarbonization

While building decarbonization holds great promise, there are several challenges that need to be addressed:

1. Accessibility and Affordability

Access to building decarbonization technologies and upgrades is currently more accessible to households with disposable income. Renters and individuals without control over home improvements or the ability to finance such upgrades face barriers to entry. Without necessary actions, those on lower incomes, including renters and seniors, may be left behind, bearing the costs of dirty energy. A human-centered approach, prioritizing lower-income communities with high energy burdens, is essential for an equitable transition to decarbonized buildings.

Federal Funding for Building Decarbonization

Starting in 2023, the IRA (Insert Relevant Agency) is set to provide rebates of up to $14,000 per income-qualified home to support decarbonization efforts in affordable housing. The rebates cover a range of upgrades, including heat pump water heaters, heat pumps for space heating or cooling, electric stoves, electric load service center upgrades, insulation, air sealing, ventilation, and electric wiring. This funding aims to make building decarbonization more accessible to a wider range of households.


Building decarbonization is a critical step towards achieving a sustainable future. By implementing energy efficiency measures, electrifying buildings, embracing renewable energy sources, and managing electricity loads, we can significantly reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

Building decarbonization offers benefits such as climate action, cost management, preservation of affordable housing, and improved indoor air quality. However, challenges related to accessibility and affordability must be addressed to ensure an equitable transition for all. With federal funding initiatives supporting building decarbonization, it becomes increasingly feasible for households to embrace a decarbonized future. Let us work together to create a world where buildings contribute to a sustainable and resilient planet.