The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has released a national blueprint to decarbonize the building sector by 90% before 2050. The plan includes retrofitting windows on millions of commercial and residential buildings throughout the U.S.

DOE officials say the plan will reduce buildings’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2050. To reach these goals, DOE officials say the building sector must focus on four strategies:

  • Increase energy efficiency among buildings;
  • Accelerate onsite emissions reduction;
  • Transform the interactions between buildings and the electrical grid; and
  • Minimize emissions from producing, transporting, installing and disposing of building materials.
U.S. Department of Energy officials explain that while glass plays a vital role in DOE’s plan, the push to upgrade all windows throughout the building sector will be a monumental undertaking.

Officials explain that while glass plays a vital role in DOE’s plan, the push to upgrade all windows throughout the building sector will be a monumental undertaking.

“Upgrades to the building envelope are one of the most impactful building efficiency measures, yet they are infrequent,” write Jared Langevin and Eric Wilson, the blueprint’s primary authors. “At current retrofit rates, upgrading all residential windows would take at least 30 years, while increasing the insulation of all homes would take at least 90 years; retrofitting commercial building envelope components would take longer—up to 250 years for commercial insulation. Comprehensive, high-performance envelope retrofits occur at an even slower pace that could extend full replacement timelines for certain envelope components.”

Langevin and Wilson say that the retrofit rate must increase up to 25 times by 2030 to meet DOE’s 2050 plan. DOE has focused on accelerating the window retrofit process via initiatives centered on secondary glazing. The American-Made Building Envelope Innovation Prize offers up to $2 million to promote the production of affordable secondary glazing systems.

Retired researcher Stephen Selkowitz says secondary glazing is a faster and cheaper retrofit option than replacing the window or curtainwall replacement. Selkowitz is an affiliate of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and former group leader for LBNL’s windows and envelope materials group.

“When a major building renovation and reuse with new HVAC is planned, a full window/façade replacement may be the best choice, although it is often costly and time-consuming and involves occupant relocation,” he says. “Secondary glazing solutions will be faster, cheaper and less disruptive in an occupied building.”

Along with the goals, three cross-cutting goals, including equity, affordability and resilience, will help accelerate onsite emissions reductions. The achievement of these goals will have far-reaching implications, say officials, including reducing building energy use by one-third and unlocking billions of dollars in energy and health savings.

“America’s building sector accounts for more than a third of the harmful emissions jeopardizing our air and health, but the [Federal Government] has developed a forward-looking strategy to slash these pollutants from buildings across the nation,” says U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “As part of a whole-of-government approach, DOE is outlining for the first time a comprehensive federal plan to reduce energy in our homes, schools and workplaces—lowering utility bills and creating healthier communities while combating the climate crisis.”

DOE’s timeline is as follows:

  • Call to action (before 2030): Federal stakeholders must take urgent action to lay the groundwork for a rapid transition toward widespread deployment of low-carbon building technologies and operational approaches;
  • Adapt and scale (2030-40): The mid-stage of the transition will see implementation shift toward assessing gaps and challenges with initial low-carbon technology deployment efforts while leveraging the full range of available federal actions to address critical gaps; and
  • Complete the transition (2040-50): The final stage of implementation will focus on identifying and addressing remaining sources of building emissions with an eye toward reducing total sectoral emissions to as close to zero as possible. This includes window retrofits.

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