Home Sick in Alexandria

Home Sick in Alexandria

Outdated apartment complexes gush greenhouse gas emissions.

Alexandria's old and outdated apartment buildings are the number one source of carbon emissions in the city, leaky structures that allow air conditioning and heating to escape through inefficient windows and permeable roofs. Now city officials have a plan to decarbonize sick buildings, and make sure new ones don't contribute to climate change. The plans are outlined in an action plan now setting goals for the next few decades.

"They set pretty ambitious targets for retrofitting existing buildings," said Benjamin Preston, senior environmental policy researcher at the Rand Corporation. "What you see in the policies that are being proposed in that action plan recognizes that they have to figure out how to create financial incentives to get homeowners to implement these policies or to come up with clever ways of financing retrofits."

The Energy and Climate Action Plan approved earlier this year includes strategies to improve the efficiency of lighting and appliances as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The document also suggests ways to electrify buildings, replacing old fuel-powered heating systems that contribute to climate change. Because the city chose to combine emissions from buildings and emissions from electricity production, the final report puts a spotlight on buildings as a chief concern for the city.

"Nobody's coming after your gas stove."

— Mary Harris, Energy and Climate Action Plan Task Force

"Obviously those emissions are being produced elsewhere at the power plant," said Preston. "Nevertheless, they're looking downstream where the electricity is going, and they are attributing power plant emissions back to the city based on electricity used in the buildings."

GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS from transportation are often seen as a chief source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the action plan identifies significant problems there as well. But because the report focuses so heavily on large apartment complexes as the city's chief source of emissions rather than cars or buses, many people were surprised at the findings.

"I was surprised," admitted Mary Harris, co-chairwoman of the Alexandria Energy and Climate Change Action Plan Task Force. "I would have suspected it was transportation. But in fact it was buildings by a mile."

Four years ago, the Alexandria City Council adopted a resolution declaring a climate emergency, setting the stage for the action plan that is now outlining goals for the future. Perhaps the most ambitious goal is reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Alexandria by 100 percent over the next 20 years. Task force members who helped put the plan together say they are hoping to use a mix of incentives to property owners and zoning requirements for future buildings — essentially a carrot-and-stick approach that will often depend on voluntary action to accomplish the goal.

"Nobody's coming after your gas stove," said Harris. "But if we want to meet a goal of reducing emissions, we need to electrify as many buildings as we can, reduce energy use in those buildings and generally decarbonize them."

Hot, Wet, and Wild!

What can Alexandrians do about climate change? On Monday, Sept. 18, Agenda Alexandria will host a panel discussion to take a look at what Alexandria is doing to prepare for climate change. The event is free and open to the public at the Lyceum, 201 South Washington Street. Panelists include:

* Ryan Freed, climate action officer for the city of Alexandria

* Rose Stephens-Booker, director of State Mobilization Building Decarbonization Coalition

* Kathie Hoekstra, chairwoman of the Alexandria’s Environmental Policy Commission