Boston, Massachusetts.
Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: Kevin Gill / Creative Commons

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A bill pending in the Massachusetts Legislature could make the state one of the first to require all large commercial buildings to meet energy use performance standards, a measure that could slash their emissions more than 80% by 2040, supporters say.

The Better Buildings Act would mandate energy use reporting from large commercial buildings. Buildings that fail to meet performance standards would be required to reduce emissions or pay a fee to the state. Only Washington and Colorado have similar statewide rules in place, though several cities and towns throughout the country have adopted such measures. 

“There’s no way for us to meet our climate goals as a state without tackling emissions from our buildings,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts. “And we haven’t really grappled yet with what we need to do to get all of our existing building stock off fossil fuels.”

As Massachusetts attempts to reach its goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050, emissions from existing buildings are likely to be one of the thorniest challenges. Heating and hot water for commercial and residential buildings account for about 27% of the state’s carbon emissions, and electricity generation contributes another 17%.

Massachusetts has some of the country’s oldest building stock, much of which is fitted with oil-burning heating systems, drafty windows, and meager insulation. There is widespread acknowledgment that cutting emissions in existing buildings will require extensive upgrades and retrofits, often at significant cost to owners. 

The climate bill passed in February includes measures aimed at cutting emissions associated with new buildings, such as the requirement for an optional net-zero energy building code, but does little to tackle the challenge posed by existing buildings. 

“This is a really significant problem and we have nothing on our books to address it,” said state Sen. Becca Rausch, who introduced the new bill. 

The Better Buildings Act would go into effect in 2022, initially requiring commercial buildings greater than 25,000 square feet and government buildings larger than 10,000 square feet to submit reports of their energy use each year to the state Department of Energy Resources, which would aggregate the information into an annual report. The threshold for commercial buildings would drop to 15,000 square feet by 2030. 

By the end of 2023, the department would develop performance standards for different types of buildings, so a laboratory isn’t held to the same criteria as an office building or fitness center. The law would require the state standard to be at or lower than the median energy use for buildings in each category. Individual cities and towns could also choose to enact more stringent standards for their communities. 

“We see this as our biggest opportunity to make gains in emissions reductions this year,” said Jacob Stern, deputy director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club.

Large buildings are a sensible place to start the retrofit efforts because of their outsized impact on emissions, supporters said. For example, in Cambridge, which already has a building energy use disclosure program, just 8% of buildings fell under the guidelines in 2016, but these structures made up 61% of the building square footage in the city.

“That’s really the justification right there,” Stern said. “This feels like low-hanging fruit to us.”

While some of the largest building owners have already begun implementing energy efficiency measures in order to trim costs, many of the property owners that would fall under the proposed law are unaware of many of the programs, incentives, and technologies that could help achieve greater efficiency, said Erin Cosgrove, public policy manager for Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships. The Better Buildings Act would raise awareness of available options, she said. 

The law could even unleash some entrepreneurial creativity, sparking the rise of new efficiency or clean energy business models as startups try to capitalize on the new requirements.

“This is going to allow some people to get creative,” Cosgrove said. 

The ideas of energy use reporting and performance standards have already excited interest in some towns and cities. Like Cambridge, Boston already has energy use disclosure regulations for existing buildings. Boston is now considering whether to adopt emissions standards that would decline every five years until large buildings were required to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

In Natick, a suburb to the west of Boston, the town climate action plan has already targeted building energy use standards as an important strategy for climate reductions. However, implementing such an ambitious program might be challenging for one municipality to take on by itself, so Natick has been in conversations with neighboring towns about forming a regional alliance, said town sustainability coordinator Jillian Wilson-Martin.

Natick would welcome statewide regulations, she said. 

“That would make achieving that priority a lot easier for us,” she said. “We think it would make it easier for property owners as well — it would be great to have consistency in the regulation and the support they would get.”

The Better Buildings Act has received pushback from the commercial real estate industry, supporters note. And concerns about the costs the bill could require of property owners are real and valid, Stern said.

To address these worries, the bill includes a provision requiring the energy department to work with utility companies to provide and promote incentives to help building owners meet the standards. Rebates for energy efficiency measures or subsidies for renewable energy could help the changes make financial sense for property owners, supporters said. 

“Some of those concerns around cost should be taken really seriously,” Stern said. “The goal is they will have lower costs for operations of these buildings that in the long-run will pay for themselves.”

The bill has been referred to committee, but no hearing date has yet been set. Rausch filed a similar bill last year and it was supported by the committee, but didn’t make it to a final legislative vote. However, she is encouraged by the positive reception of last year’s bill and the momentum in the Legislature following the passage of the climate bill earlier this year. 

With the passage of the bill, “Massachusetts would and should become the leader in the nation to address this problem,” she said. “I remain optimistic for the bill’s success this time.”

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.