How district energy meets the Federal Building Performance Standard


The Biden Administration announced the first-ever Federal Building Performance Standard (BPS), which aims to cut energy use and electrify equipment and appliances in 30% of Federally owned building space by 2030.

This announcement paves the way for Federal buildings to adopt cleaner, more energy-efficient technologies. This transition to green energy is critical to achieving President Biden’s net-zero emissions goal across all Federal buildings by 2045.

Many states and cities around the U.S. are enacting similar fossil fuel bans for existing and new buildings. In Boston, for example, Mayor Michelle Wu recently announced that she intends to file legislation that allows for a ban on the use of fossil fuels for new developments and renovations in Boston.

In Maryland, the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022 sets a statewide greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goal of 60% by 2031 and net-zero by 2045. The legislation also includes building performance standards like reporting direct emissions from heating starting in 2025 and achieving a 20% reduction in direct emissions by 2030.

Philadelphia’s Climate Action Playbook outlines strategies to achieve a 50% reduction in emissions from the built environment by 2030. Kansas City outlined key goals for achieving carbon neutrality in municipal operations by 2030 and carbon neutrality citywide by 2040.

Biden’s aggressive Federal standard is poised to reduce emissions for a massive swath of U.S. buildings: the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) owns and leases more than 371 million square feet of space in 8,600 buildings in more than 2,200 communities.

So, what is the impact of this effort? The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that over the next 30 years, this new standard would reduce Federal building carbon emissions by 1.86 million metric tons and methane emissions by 22.8 thousand tons.

What does the new Building Performance Standard mean for Federal buildings?

The Federal BPS requires Federal buildings to phase out on-site fossil fuels for end-uses such as heating buildings or producing hot water.

Buildings must eliminate 30% of Scope 1 emissions, defined as “direct GHG emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by the Federal agency,” by 2030.

Scope 1 emissions are also defined as emissions primarily associated with the following:

  • Fuel combustion for owned or on-site generation of electricity, heat, cooling, or steam
  • Fuel combustion for agency-controlled mobile sources
  • Intentional or unintentional GHG releases, i.e., fugitive emissions
  • Manufacturing, industrial, and laboratory processes energy

According to the rule, approximately one-third of Federal building-related greenhouse gas emissions are Scope 1 emissions generated from on-site fossil fuel combustion, commonly powered by natural gas-fired equipment.

The rule also defines Scope 2 emissions as “Indirect GHG emissions resulting from the generation of electricity, heat, or steam purchased by a Federal agency.”

In short, Federal buildings currently using on-site natural gas boilers will be required to switch to an alternative option, like connecting to a utility-scale district energy system or installing their own electrification equipment, such as heat pumps.

How can federal buildings meet this 30% reduction requirement by 2030?

The primary pathway to achieve this goal is to electrify all appliances and equipment used for processes like space heating and domestic or service water heating. However, the rule also highlights another option, one that already exists and doesn’t require any upgrades or retrofits to buildings: connecting to district energy.

What does the Federal BPS mean for buildings connected to district energy systems?

The over 600 district systems operating throughout the U.S. power college campuses, commercial buildings, and cities using efficient, reliable, clean steam.

Biden’s standard makes an important distinction for buildings receiving electricity, hot or chilled water, or steam via district energy.

If the district system is agency-owned, the building must include the direct Scope 1 emissions from the district system in determining whether the agency can help the building meet the BPS goal.

However, utility-owned district systems, like Vicinity Energy’s, are categorized as indirect, Scope 2 emissions, and not part of the new Federal BPS.

Federal buildings currently connected to Vicinity’s systems can instantly meet the requirements set by the new standard, and buildings connected in the future can also meet these requirements while benefitting from the efficient, sustainable, and reliable service district energy provides.

Vicinity Energy’s systems will help buildings meet mandates like BERDO 2.0 in Boston, BEUDO in Cambridge, and now the new Federal BPS; however, our systems are moving beyond these requirements as we are taking steps to electrify our operations and decarbonize the cities we serve.

Our progressive climate action plan will allow us to reach net-zero carbon emissions ahead of our 2050 commitment by electrifying all of our central facilities and instantly decarbonizing the buildings we serve. With a combination of  proven technologies such as water-source heat pumps, electric boilers, and molten salt thermal storage, we can offer our customers eSteam™, the nation’s first-ever carbon-free energy product powered by renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro power.

In November of 2022, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, along with Vicinity’s customers and partners, celebrated a significant step forward in these plans to electrify with the deconstruction of a steam turbine at our Kendall Green Energy Facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

An electric boiler is taking its place and will enter service in 2024 to begin powering Boston and Cambridge-based buildings, like those owned by innovative customers such as IQHQ, with carbon-free eSteam™.

While we commemorated this exciting step in Boston and Cambridge, our other locations in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Kansas City, and more will undergo similar electrification processes in the coming years.

Learn more about our electrification plan in our white paper.

Vicinity Energy White Paper - Revolutionizing Urban Sustainability

Matt O'Malley

Matt O'Malley is Vicinity's first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer, responsible for leading the company’s decarbonization efforts and guiding the execution of Vicinity’s Clean Energy Future, Net Zero Carbon plan. He writes about topics related to decarbonization, district energy, and creating a clean energy future.