Shared Screenshot Ashrae Kent P 63fe623b45e24

HPAC 'On The Air': Decarbonization in Action, with ASHRAE's Kent Peterson

Feb. 28, 2023
*DECARB PODCAST* Now in year two, the Task Force on Building Decarbonization is ready to make its influence felt. Here, its energetic new chair details what's ahead.

"We have to remember; we're all on a journey."

This month's guest is Kent Peterson, P.E., the new chair of ASHRAE's Task Force on Building Decarbonization, which is now in its second year of existence. An ASHRAE past president, Peterson is co-founder and COO of consulting engineer P2S Inc., in Long Beach CA.

In the wake of ASHRAE's Winter Meeting in Atlanta and the recent COP27 United Nation's Climate Conference in Egypt, we discussed how the task force is now gaining momentum and leveraging the efforts of more than 100 volunteers to share the information it has gathered with every corner of the global society.

Click below to listen...


What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation...

HPAC: Kent, thanks for joining us this month on 'HPAC On The Air'. Please tell our listeners a bit about your background, your history with ASHRAE, and how you came to be chairman now of its vital Task Force on Building Decarbonization...

Kent Peterson:  Thank you, Rob. First, let me say, I'm honored to join you and your listeners on your podcast today and talk about this important subject of decarbonization. I've been a consulting engineer in the building and infrastructure sector my entire career, and my identical twin brother and I together founded P2S Inc. back in 1991. It's now grown to a 300-person consulting engineering firm, working all up and down the West Coast of the United States.

And I am lucky in my day job to work with some pretty passionate engineers who really care about the environment and understand the many challenges we face in our industry. I joined ASHRAE as a student member back when I was in the university, and I have been fortunate to be able to work with some of the best and brightest people throughout my career in ASHRAE.

I've donated extensive time to the society throughout my career and I've been honored and fortunate to be able to help advance energy efficiency and sustainability in our industry. As you mentioned, I had the honor to serve as ASHRAE President back in 2007-08. My theme in that year was Greater Efficiency Today, Blue Skies Tomorrow. So, even 15 years ago, we were starting to talk about the impacts of climate change and what the building industry needed to start looking to do as we moved into the future.

I did chair ASHRAE Standard 189.1, the High Performance Building Standard Committee when it was published in 2010. That now is known today as the International Green Construction Code. I've also served on the Federal Government Green Building Advisory Committee from 2011 to 2022. Last year, I co-chaired the Federal Building Decarbonization Task Group while I served on the ASHRAE Task Force, which I was asked to actually take over and chair this year. And it's an honor to be able to work with so many great thought leaders on this subject matter.

HPAC: In June, ASHRAE published its first Position Document on Building Decarbonization. Can you please provide a high-level summary of ASHRAE’s positions in that document and how well it was received by the ASHRAE members? 

KP:  Absolutely. We're really excited about it. We had a previous position document on climate change also, but ASHRAE's position on this is relatively simple. Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment is essential to address climate change. And we're all on board with the fact that, by 2030, the global built environment needs to halve its 2015 greenhouse gas emissions. So we're saying right now that, by 2050, the entire building sector, meaning all new and all existing buildings, really needs to be at net zero emissions across the whole lifecycle.

We considered a lot of possibilities in working on this position document and we got the ASHRAE board to adopt several additional positions. One is very important for us, and that is that any building decarbonization strategies and policies need to consider healthy, safe, and comfortable environments.

The environmental and social impacts sustainability, resilience and economics. We realize that economics is extremely important as we start to move forward on this. But increasing stringency and enforcement of energy codes is also going to be really critical as we look across the globe to be able to impact decarbonization. It's a worldwide problem.

So this is another aspect of that whole-life building carbon, which is what we're considering as an organization to be essential. And when I talk about whole life, we're talking not only about operational carbon reduction, we're talking about embodied carbon reduction. Both components really matter to the total carbon picture when talking about built environment options and alternatives. We need to be looking at that both for new construction and for retrofits.

And then another one that's also worth mentioning is that ASHRAE feels strongly that building performance standards should be considered as a policy tool for mandating existing building decarbonization.

HPAC: Last fall, the United Nations' COP 27 meeting convened in Egypt, something we discussed here in December with USGBC's Elizabeth Beardsley. She said one prevailing theme there was that the time truly is now for making things happen. That the clock is ticking. How does that even greater sense of urgency affect the work of the TFBD now? How do you communicate that to other ASHRAE members and, ultimately, to building owners? 

KP:  Elizabeth was correct. Every year that goes on, it's just becoming much more urgent for action. So, if I was to say the last decade was a time for realization of global climate change issues, it was also a time when many awakened in our building industry to the issue and started to make decarbonization commitments for the future. This decade has been more about the people who made those commitments asking, "What do we do now to act on those commitments?" 

People are saying that we now need to move to start to decarbonize. And decarbonizing is not black and white. It's a journey that we're going to go through to get to these goals over a period of time. But what can we do to start ratcheting down our energy consumption? Our carbon emission consumptions? To educate the building industry relative to embodied carbon and, and operational carbon and refrigerant emissions, and everything that goes along with all of this? It is going to make a difference in the long run, on getting the momentum that we need in order to accomplish these goals.

Toward that end, the task force has really been out collaborating with many other organizations representing the entire building value chain. We've been working with real estate owners, developers, building managers, architects, engineers and sustainability professionals. And through their professional organizations, we're trying to get a collaborative together in the building industry where everyone's kind of on the same page, to help harmonize what our message is to all of our members to be able to accomplish these difficult goals that we have before us.

HPAC: A year ago, we also spoke with your predecessors here, the Task Force's previous co-chairs, Tom Phoenix, and Don Colliver. Please update us in general on the Task Force, its efforts this past year, and what we can expect to see in the near future.

KP:  History's always good in understanding how this thing started. They emphasized last year just how important it was. ASHRAE realized that we really needed to put a strong effort forth to do a force multiplier with all of our volunteer efforts within the society in order to really address building decarbonization.

So, the goal of the first year was really to gather industry thought leaders, to brainstorm and to understand the various aspects of building decarbonization: what knowledge existed in our industry, what were some of the potential knowledge gaps that were out there, and what did we need to actually do? We used that first year to really build the knowledge base. And, as I said before, it's essential for everyone to understand we're on a journey.

It's not that tomorrow we have to have the solutions, but we need to start building the solution sets.

We need the innovation over the next three decades in order to accomplish these 2050 goals of having the entire existing and, and new construction all being net zero carbon. So, no one has all the answers today, and there's going to be substantial innovation that's going to be needed to accomplish this, both affordably and equitably. So it's not just a matter of carbon that we're measuring. There are other factors that go into a lot of this.

After getting a lot of this knowledge base together, we met last spring to strategize. And I'm one of these people who really believes strongly that strategy and execution need to marry with each other. So it was important enough for us to have a strategy as we started to move forward with all the information we had gathered.

So we're using strategy to inform our execution arm on the task force. We have a strategic group that does nothing but think strategy. They are thought leaders who are well-balanced across the industry. We also have global advisory panels where we're actually meeting with other international organizations, saying, "This is what we're doing. What are you doing? How can we work together?"

We want to leverage all the groups together. So we developed a plan last spring that culminated at the June ASHRAE meeting when it went to the board for approval. That now represents a multimillion-dollar investment by ASHRAE, along with a lot of volunteer resources that will also be needed to go along with it.

HPAC: I understand ASHRAE is also quickly addressing decarbonization in many of its key building industry standards and guides. Can you let us all know what is in the works there? 

KP:  We have roughly 160 volunteers in ASHRAE who are working on the taskforce and its deliverables. Right now, this includes developing seven building decarbonization design guides, as well as education training, a decarbonization website to disseminate knowledge, and a social media presence to get the message out to our members and others in the industry. And we're also "decarbonizing" key ASHRAE standards as we start to move forward.

We've already published our first technical resource guide on building performance standards. That's available for free on our website. It's for people interested in seeing how standards will help as the U.S. starts using this policy tool to encourage building owners to improve the performance of their existing buildings. Other decarbonization guides will include development of heat pump applications, a how-to guide for existing buildings, because they are very different from new buildings in terms of decarbonization. Also, whole life carbon for building systems or MEP systems, building grid interface design guide on how to actually interface a building with the electric grid, to use the time and thermal storage strategies and demand strategies.

And then we have a special guide that's a hospital guide. We wanted to take a heavy, energy-intensive-type structure, like a hospital and see if we can do a decarb guide for that building type. Then it's going to be easier to see how we can decarb other types of things. And all these things are coming together. They're all in the works now and we're moving fast.

We have separate working groups on each one of these guides that are developing. And we have three more guides that'll be coming out before the end of this year. And then the last three remaining guides are scheduled to come out by June of next year.

HPAC: And what about existing standards? When will they be updated or revised?

KP:  Well, we write a lot of industry standards. ASHRAE is known for that. So there is a whole separate effort that the task force has been working with our standards project committees and the standards committee in order to get decarbonization into those standards.

To hit some of the targets we talked about in our position documents, we realize that ASHRAE Standard 90.1 is going to have to get to zero carbon by 2030. And so we have three code cycles left. Right now, their target is 2031, which just happens to be where the three-year code cycle hits. But they're also coming out right now and working on a jurisdictional option for zero carbon. That will be out by the end of this year.

So, for any jurisdictions that want be leaders, that will be out there and published by the end of 2023. Also, 90.2 is our residential building energy efficiency standard. And they don't want to be just the minimum standard; they want to be a reach standard now. So they're already moving half way towards net zero energy by the end of 2023. And they're also creating a zero energy and zero carbon as an informative appendix in the 2023 publication. Their goal is to actually have their standard be zero carbon and zero energy by 2025. So not just an informative appendix, but if someone wants to adopt that whole standard, it'll be 2025.

It's a lot of other things, too. Our Standard 100 has been traditionally for existing buildings and their energy performance. We now are modifying that standard to be our building performance standard to address both energy and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), to go along with what is happening with building performance standards in the industry.

We've also gone to our previous Standard 211 committee members. That is our standard for ASHRAE energy audits, i.e. Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, etc. And we need to now modify that standard and add decarbonization assessments. So they've already gone and developed a document that's an informative appendix, that should be out in the revised version within a couple months. It's out for public review now, but they've already developed that to get building decarbonization assessment standards together for what that really means when building owners want to go out and get decarbonization assessments.

And the other big thing that's exciting right now is that ASHRAE and ICC have teamed up with a brand new standard that we just started late last year, and that's evaluating greenhouse gas and carbon emissions and building design, construction and operation. It's known as Standard 240 (proposed). And that committee's also already begun work on this. But eventually, that probably is going to get into the building codes on how to address the whole life carbon cycle of a building. So there's a lot going on with standards right now.

HPAC: I'll say. That really is quite a full plate. Just one last question... On this subject, I feel like I still need to address a persistent gorilla in the room, because it also threatens to impede implementation of your recommended decarbonization strategies. Incredibly, despite overwhelming (but admittedly not unanimous) scientific consensus, there is still some skepticism and even climate change denial within our industry. Dealing with that in the general public is one thing, but how do you handle pushback from that vocal minority of colleagues? Does the Task Force have a strategy for dealing with that? Or do clients ultimately end the debate? 

KP (laughs): I certainly appreciate you ending on a very challenging question.

You know, climate change moves so slowly that its pace is really only evident primarily through graphs and statistics. And while some scientists and policymakers have raised concerns about the effects of climate change that might be exaggerated, the natural cycles are the primary cause of the warming trend. And we know that there's certainly some evidence to support these claims. There's no question that some politicians and others that aren't in-the-know perhaps over-exaggerate some claims and blame everything on climate change these days.

But we know, when we look at the scientific evidence, as you said, the overwhelming majority really points to human activities as the primary cause of climate change since the industrial age. And atmospheric CO2 emissions, those levels were under 300 ppm for some 800,000 years that humans existed prior to 1950. Then they started to go over 300 ppm. In 2013, they went over 400 ppm.

We also know that greenhouse gases trap heat in our atmosphere. As population has been growing, and as we build more buildings, we're now scheduled to double the global building stock by 2060. When we get to 2050, there will be close to 10 billion people on this Earth. So, we need to figure out better ways to do it. And that's the bottom line. As I said earlier, we're on a journey. We have to find reliable and affordable methods to decarbonize. The building industry and the electric generation industry are going to have to work together to optimize what that solution is going to be.

Anyone who tells you that you have all the solutions today, they really don't understand the complex social, economic, geopolitical, energy and security concerns surrounding building decarbonization. We're going to need a lot more innovation in the building and energy supply sectors to achieve what the optimal solutions are going to be by 2050. But we've got to start today. That's the biggest thing.

And with respect to those people who are in the minority, and they're vocal, the building industry is moving forward to address building decarbonization with or without the vocal minority. That pretty much has been addressed in the last couple years. And certainly it was on full display at the AHR Expo in Atlanta among all the manufacturers. You go to that conference, and everyone can see that this is the issue now. So we will move forward with or without you.

You can still be a vocal minority, but the building industry is moving forward. We're doing things on the task force to educate our members to really understand what the issues are and to underdstand that the industry is moving in this direction. And if you want to be relevant, then you need to educate yourself on what the tool sets are to help decarbonize buildings for the clients you have out there.

HPAC: Kent, I'm afraid that's all we have time for. Thanks so much for joining us. We wish you the best of luck on achieving everything in front of you in this eventful year. 

KP:  Thanks for having me, Rob. It was a pleasure to talk with you and your listeners.


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About the Author

Rob McManamy | Editor in Chief

An industry reporter and editor since 1987, McManamy joined HPAC Engineering in September 2017, after three years with, a Chicago-based media startup focused on tech innovation in the built environment. He has been covering design and construction issues for more than 30 years, having started at Engineering News-Record (ENR) in New York, before becoming its Midwest Bureau Chief in 1990. In 1998, McManamy was named Editor-in-Chief of Design-Build magazine, where he served for four years. He subsequently worked as an editor and freelance writer for Building Design + Construction and Public Works magazines.

A native of Bronx, NY, he is a graduate of both the University of Virginia, and The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Contact him at [email protected].