Testimony of Mark Rodeffer
of the Sierra Club DC Chapter
before the DC Council Committee on Government Operations and Facilities
on the Greener Government Buildings Act (B24-0785)
October 6, 2022
Thank you, Councilmember White, for the opportunity to testify today about the Greener Government Buildings Act (B24-0785). My name is Mark Rodeffer, and I lead the Sierra Club’s effort to transition buildings in DC off dirty energy and onto clean heating systems using electricity from renewable sources. The Sierra Club agrees with the intent of the Greener Government Buildings Act of ensuring that newly constructed and substantially renovated buildings owned or financed by the DC government are net zero, meaning they are highly energy efficient, generate renewable energy on-site, and do not combust fossil fuels such as fracked methane gas.
Benefits of Net Zero Buildings
A net zero building generates energy on-site over the course of a year equal to the amount of energy the building consumes over the course of a year. This requires that a net zero building minimize its energy consumption through efficiency measures while maximizing its generation of renewable energy on-site. If any additional energy is needed for the building, it must be provided by renewable energy from electricity that directly serves the building.
Net zero buildings use little energy, so they have lower operational costs, saving money for building owners and occupants. Net zero buildings use only renewable energy, with no combustion of fossil fuels, improving indoor air quality and avoiding health threats like asthma and respiratory ailments that are associated with fossil fuel combustion.
Defining Net Zero Buildings
The Clean Energy DC Building Code Act (Bill 24-420), passed unanimously by the DC Council and signed into law by the mayor over the summer, requires that starting in 2026, all newly constructed and substantially renovated buildings in DC, whether privately or publicly owned, be net zero. The DC Building Code Act defines net zero with a clean energy hierarchy, prioritizing energy efficiency, maximizing on-site renewable generation, and only then allowing for limited procurement of off-site energy that directly serves the building in the form of long-term contracts for electricity from renewable sources, known as power purchase agreements (PPAs).
Dirty Energy Loophole in Greener Government Buildings Act
The DC government should lead by example and require that its own buildings meet the net zero standard in the DC Building Code Act before requiring that privately owned buildings meet the same standard. We believe this is the intent of the Greener Government Buildings Act. But as written, this legislation contains a giant loophole large enough to build a fracked gas pipeline through. The loophole would allow DC government buildings to waste energy, burn fossil fuels, and generate no renewable energy on-site.
The loophole, on lines 53 to 56 of the bill, would allow the mayor to set “other standards” that “ensure that each building is energy efficient and procures new renewable energy generation.” This means that anything could be defined as “energy efficient” and that as long as the DC government procures renewable energy credits for off-site energy generation that does not serve the building, the building could be considered net zero. This definition would allow the DC government to bypass the energy efficiency and renewable energy generation requirements for privately owned buildings. Such a definition is net zero in name only and does not meet the definition of net zero used by architects, engineers, and building industry professionals.
Fixing the Dirty Energy Loophole for Government Buildings
This is a serious problem, but there’s a simple solution: the Greener Government Buildings Act should adopt the same definition of net zero as the Clean Energy DC Building Code Act. This can be accomplished by deleting the definition of net zero contained in lines 52 to 56 of the Greener Government Buildings Act and replacing it with the definition contained in Section 2 (a) (3) of the DC Building Code Act, which requires that:
- Renewable energy shall be generated at the building wherever feasible;
- To the extent a building procures electricity from off-site sources, the building may not use renewable energy credits for electricity that does not directly serve the building; and
- On-site fuel combustion shall not be permitted for the provision of thermal energy to the building.
If the Greener Government Building Act is not amended with this definition of net zero, it will deny DC the cost-saving, public health, and climate benefits of true net zero buildings. The Sierra Club will oppose passage of this bill unless the definition of net zero is amended to match the definition in the DC Building Code Act.
Addressing Concerns Listed in Written Testimony from DGS
I would like to address the concerns the Department of General Services (DGS) lists in its written testimony. But first, I note that the Sierra Club commends DGS for delivering two net zero buildings already, John Lewis Elementary School and Banneker High School. We appreciate that DGS briefed us on the new schools, and we were pleased to learn that construction cost for these net zero buildings did not exceed what the costs would have been if the buildings were not net zero. Because the schools just opened, we do not yet know the total energy bill savings from these highly efficient buildings, but we do know that an elementary school in Arlington, Virginia has reported annual savings of $120,000 a year on energy costs because the school is net zero. We applaud DGS for planning more taxpayer- money-saving net zero buildings at Bard High School, Raymond Elementary School, and Stead Park Recreation Center.
In its testimony, DGS notes that historic preservation rules in DC limit solar on rooftops of historic buildings. Though the Sierra Club strongly disagrees with those rules, we understand that DGS must unfortunately abide by them. Historic preservation rules apply to the outside of buildings, not the interior, so we are disappointed that DGS testified that “the Historic Preservation Society typically looks to maintain existing corridors and stairwell locations, even if they do not allow for optimal efficiency in terms of energy use per square foot.” The Sierra Club does not believe the Historic Preservation Society should be allowed to dictate to DGS that DC government buildings not be allowed to reduce energy use, save taxpayer money, and cut greenhouse gas emissions because of the Historic Preservation Society’s tastes on stairwell aesthetics. To the degree that actual DC laws and regulations limit on-site renewable energy generation, PPAs for clean electricity that directly serves the buildings will allow historic buildings to be net-zero, even with limited on-site generation. DGS states in its testimony that “it is not feasible to comply with net zero energy design principles on all projects.” The Sierra Club submits that this statement is factually inaccurate and that any barriers to efficiency and on-site renewable generation can be addressed with PPAs for clean electricity that directly serves the building.
DGS states in its testimony that for some of its buildings, geothermal heat pump systems are not feasible because of limited space or a building being located in a flood plain. To be clear, neither net zero standards nor this legislation require geothermal heat pumps. Though geothermal systems are highly efficient, reduce energy use, save money, and cut greenhouse gas emissions, they are not the only clean and efficient building heating and cooling systems available. Buildings can and do operate at net zero without geothermal systems.
The testimony from DGS states that “embodied carbons that come from fabricating materials like concrete, steel, and windows will also need to be accounted for.” The Sierra Club agrees wholeheartedly with this statement. We absolutely encourage DGS to reduce embodied emissions from its new buildings to the maximum extent possible while ensuring the buildings also meet net zero standards to further reduce emissions in operation of the buildings.
DGS states in its testimony that occupants of net-zero buildings “will need to commit to such practices as unplugging microwaves and mini fridges when not in use.” To be clear, there is nothing in this legislation that requires anything to be unplugged. Energy efficiency means delivering the same outcome with less energy. Energy efficiency is not defined by personal sacrifices. No one should be concerned that this legislation would require people to unplug microwaves or refrigerators.
Mayor Bowser’s Clean Energy DC Plan states that new buildings in DC will be net zero by 2026. The Clean Energy DC Building Code Act, passed unanimously by the Council and signed by the mayor this summer, codifies net zero new construction by 2026 into law. If DGS argues that some of DC’s new and substantially renovated government buildings should not be required to be net zero, DGS is arguing that the executive branch should not follow the executive branch’s own energy policy nor current law. Luckily, we know from both completed and planned net zero DC government buildings that DGS can rise to the occasion of providing net zero buildings that save money and reduce pollution.
Thank you, Councilmember White, for the opportunity to testify today. We agree with your goal of ensuring the DC government leads by example and enjoys the benefits of net zero buildings. And we want to work with you to ensure that the Greener Government Buildings Act makes certain DC government buildings are in fact net zero. That will require adopting the definition of net zero from the DC Building Code Act.
 Presentation of November 2019 meeting of the DMV Net-Zero Energy Coalition. Slide 37. Available at https://sites.google.com/view/dmv-nze-coalition/home/resources_1/november-1-2019-meeting. Last Accessed on October 5, 2022