Office building emissions soar as owners crank up ventilation systems

Updated industry guidelines being ignored

National /
Aug.August 16, 2021 10:35 AM
By July 2021, office energy use was on pace to be $29 billion annually despite just 34 percent occupancy. (iStock)

In July, office energy use was at 91 percent of pre-pandemic levels despite just 34 percent occupancy. (iStock)

In the name of safety, office landlords are cranking their ventilation systems to keep Covid at bay. An unintended but predictable consequence, however, is a rise in carbon emissions from office buildings.

A new report from Hatch Data analyzed carbon emissions from commercial buildings across the country. The software company predicts commercial buildings will use around 44 billion kilowatt hours of additional energy per year when pre-Covid occupancy returns, according to the Commercial Observer.

In February 2020, offices were at 94 percent occupancy, using around $30 billion of electricity annually. Then the pandemic hit and occupancy levels plunged — but electricity use did not drop nearly as much.

In April 2020, office buildings were down to 15 percent occupancy, but still using 76 percent of the electricity they were in February. By July 2021, office energy use was back up to an annual pace of $29 billion, or 91 percent, despite buildings being just 34 percent occupied.

A big reason for the high energy use in low-occupancy offices are new and constantly running ventilation systems, considered a necessity at the beginning of the pandemic. Last spring, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers called on landlords to upgrade air-filtration systems and keep ventilation systems running nonstop.

ASHRAE has since backed off those original guidelines in hopes of reducing HVAC use. But many landlords aren’t following the updated guidance, perhaps trying to emphasize the safety of the office as workers slowly trickle back in.

In New York City, high energy use will become increasingly problematic following the passage of a law setting tight emissions caps effective in 2024. Office energy use in the city is just slightly below the national average, despite much lower occupancy rates.

[CO] — Holden Walter-Warner





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