Laying the Foundation for a Sound Federal Building Performance Standard

A new paper coauthored by researchers at Resources for the Future outlines design options—and their pros and cons—for a federal building performance standard that could serve as a blueprint for city-wide or regional standards across the country.


Aug. 4, 2021

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Press Release

From desert office buildings to sub-arctic laboratories, the US government owns or maintains over 1 billion square feet of non-military building space. As the Biden administration seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all major energy sectors, a new paper by scholars at Resources for the Future (RFF) and ClearlyEnergy digs into policy design options to reduce energy consumption or emissions from a vast number of federal buildings.

In mid-May, the Biden administration announced that the Council on Environmental Quality would work with several government agencies to develop a federal building performance standard (BPS)—a policy that would require federal buildings to achieve emissions or energy consumption-related performance goals that become more stringent over time.

The paper authors analyze a number of design options for the policy, which each have their own merits and drawbacks, noting that sound data and flexible mechanisms are crucial to the success of a federal BPS. Flexibility is important because a federal policy could be tricky to implement due to the size of the country and breadth of buildings owned and used by the federal government.

“A federal office building in Alaska is going to have very different energy needs compared to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Nevada or a courthouse in North Carolina,” RFF Senior Fellow Karen Palmer said. “Our paper reconciles the fact that the federal building portfolio is diverse. It will be important for the government to set goals that will be reasonable across building types and climate zones."

There are two predominant methods on how to set goals under a BPS—a uniform approach, which sets the same emissions-per-square-foot target for all buildings of a particular type; and a building-specific approach, which requires emissions reductions compared to a calculated baseline. The researchers note that a building-specific intensity target may be the best option for a federal BPS, since buildings in different climate zones have different energy needs. This approach, however, would require well-researched goals and monitoring protocols.

Incorporating flexibility measures such as emissions banking and averaging across building portfolios could reduce costs and help optimize investments. A sound program design is important not only for the program’s own effectiveness, but also because good data from a federal BPS could inform other, smaller-scale BPSs across the country, the researchers state.

“We are seeing many cities worldwide adopt building performance standards and will likely see more in the future,” RFF Senior Research Associate Kathryne Cleary said. “A federal policy could act as a blueprint for cities and large corporations with similarly large building portfolios, or for municipalities hoping to adopt a similar policy. It could also demonstrate how policies that span multiple building types and climate zones could work, which could come in handy as countries and regions become more serious about reducing emissions from this sector.”

To learn more about the findings, read the working paper “Leading by Example: Building Performance Standards for Decarbonizing Federal Buildings,” by ClearlyEnergy co-founder Veronique Bugnion, RFF Senior Fellow Karen Palmer, and RFF Senior Research Associate Kathryne Cleary.

For more insights on BPS, listen to the recent episode of Resources Radio featuring Bugnion or watch the related RFF Live event on creating a clean buildings sector.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

For more information, please see our media resources page or contact Media Relations and Communications Specialist Annie McDarris.

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