Geo Week News

April 30, 2024

Department of Energy Releases Report Around Decarbonizing the Buildings Sector

The wide-ranging report highlights an action plan to meet sustainability goals, and technology should be a big part of the plan.

Essentially the entire planet has been laser focused on carbon emissions and other factors contributing to climate change for decades, with the last decade in particular being a high point for this work after the 2015 Paris Agreement. While there has been some rare good news on that front recently, there’s still full understanding that work remains if we’re going to hit crucial goals laid out by researchers that are necessary to prevent the most serious long-term effects.

Every industry has their own steps that must be taken to address individual effects, but the built world continues to be the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. There are different ways to measure this so exact numbers will be difficult to find consistently across sources, but by UN methodologies the “buildings and construction sector is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, accounting for a staggering 37 percent of global emissions.” 

It’s an issue the industry is aware of and has been top of mind for years now, but when combined with increased urbanization that leads to more construction demand – all amid skilled worker shortages – it’s a tough line to walk. It’s great to innovate with new methodologies at all points in a workflow, and we’ve seen successful transitions away from particularly environmentally harmful practices, but ultimately it’s a major challenge.

Still, it remains imperative that the industry remain vigilant about its effects on the planet, trying to find ways to decrease its carbon footprint in ways that make sense. This was the topic of a recent report released by the United States Department of Energy (DOE), entitled Decarbonizing the U.S. Economy by 2050: A National Blueprint for the Buildings Sector. 


The report starts by laying out the massive issue that is ahead of the US built environment sector with some eye-opening stats. That begins simply with the scope of buildings in the country, with almost 130 million buildings already in existence and, according to the DOE, 40 million new homes and 60 billion square feet of commercial floorspace expected to be constructed between now and 2050. The major focus of this particular report is on energy consumption from the built world, with the DOE citing studies that indicate buildings account for 74 percent of electricity use, and that systems like electric vehicles, solar, and other distributed energy resources integrate with the electricity system in buildings.

All of this lays out a massive, but existential, crisis for the built world that will not be simple to fix. However, it’s clear that work needs to start immediately. To that end, the DOE report lays out a three-stage action plan to reach “buildings sector decarbonization by 2050.” In short, the first stage is from today until 2030 in which they say “federal action must focus on catalyzing the transition.” 

The second stage, lasting from 2030 until 2040, focuses on “adapting and scaling, with efforts to update market integration support, incentives, and training resources for high-impact technologies and to expand federal facility upgrades consistent with Administration goals.” And finally, between 2040 and 2050, the DOE says the final stage will “complete the transition through activities such as enabling technology adoption and prioritizing retrofits in lagging segments and addressing remaining emissions from combustion and material life cycles.”

There were a couple of individual pieces of this report that stood out in terms of what we cover at Geo Week, with the first being more of an overarching theme – a heavy focus on retrofitting. It makes sense, of course, as the nation can’t simply rebuild all of its buildings to ensure that they are fit for newer forms of heating and cooling – like heat pumps, which were another major focus of this report – and other forms of energy consumption. Instead, the course of action which makes the most sense is to retrofit existing buildings to ensure they can run these systems, something that certainly sounds logical but can often be easier said than done.


The reason I bring this up is that, while it wasn’t explicitly mentioned in this report, we know that laser scanning can be a major part of retrofitting projects. The first step of any retrofit is to have an accurate account of what the building looks like now and how things are laid out, which is where laser scanning thrives. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all retrofit strategy, so having all of this accurate data first gives builders the opportunity to figure out their workflow. Ultimately, having accurate data – down to the centimeter – of a building to work off of at least provides more information to avoid errors that could, in the worst-case scenarios, derail the entire project, and provide other avenues for more sophisticated builders, like running simulations for processes.

Additionally, it piqued my attention to see the idea of “industrialized construction” mentioned in this report. Not exactly a new idea, it is a term that is gaining in popularity. Essentially, industrialized construction is the idea of merging construction and manufacturing, generally manifested through things like modular building and prefabrication for construction sites. In this report, the DOE gives it as an example as a construction method that “wastes fewer materials and uses building materials with lower or net-negative embodied emissions intensity and/or longer lifespans.”

Industrialized construction isn’t without its negatives, but there it does make it less likely that errors will come up during construction as pieces have been manufactured to scale ahead of time, improving efficiency and financial viability of a project. That it’s also being heralded (rightly, for whatever it’s worth) as an environmentally friendly method of construction as well will only accelerate its adoption. We’ve already seen Autodesk highlight the idea, and one would assume they won’t be the last to do so.

This is a dense report with a lot of expansion on these stages, including a variety of strategies that can be utilized to achieve these ultimate goals and the ripple effects of many of these actions. There’s far more there than what we can cover in this space, so we’d highly encourage anyone in the built world sector, especially in the US, to give the entire free report a read.

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