When the Biden administration released its American Jobs Plan earlier this year, it contained significant proposals about energy efficiency and decarbonization for federal buildings, with potential ramifications beyond federal assets.
Many of those ideas started out in the Senate infrastructure bill. However, bipartisan support for any finished infrastructure bill was another high priority for the administration. As Democratic and Republican negotiators debated what to retain and how to pay for it, the infrastructure bill shrunk by more than half.
The Senate eventually passed a roughly $1 trillion package. The most consequential HVAC-related content was trimmed out along the way.
The administration’s decarbonization priorities — and especially the push for electrification within that movement — generated a range of Republican concern and opposition. That reaction is intensified in areas with substantial natural gas and other fossil fuel interests.
In the end, most of the buildings-related content fell victim to the president’s desire for Republican support and the broader conservative desire to both reduce the price tag and stick to a narrower definition of infrastructure.
After such protracted work to achieve a Senate version that attracted 19 Republicans along with all 50 Democrats, House leadership is not expected to pursue much if any change to it for its own version.
Codes, Training, Nonprofits Retain Support
The highest-profile initiatives may have failed to make the cut, but the Senate’s bill does contain meaningful, if less ambitious, HVAC-related funding.
ACCA’s manager of government relations Chris Czarnecki sifted through the language of the bill he described as a “behemoth,” identifying several items of interest and sharing his notes and comments.
Ten million dollars would go to higher education institutions to establish building training and assessment centers.
“This will be used to help identify opportunities for energy efficiency and environmental performance,” he said. “It will also be used to help train building technicians in energy-efficient operations.”
There will be grants totaling $100 million annually through 2026 for energy improvement in public schools. Perhaps somewhat of a surprise given the heavy dose of COVID-related funding approved for K-12 improvements, this does seem to provide more funding for school HVAC upgrades or replacements.
Nonprofits (including churches) received half that amount in grants for energy-efficient improvements including HVAC.
Trade schools would receive $10 million for expansion of industrial research and assessment centers.
Another provision would send grant money to states, who could in turn make loans for conducting commercial energy audits.
The bill authorizes $45 million for better implementation of energy-efficient building codes.
By far the largest investment on the list, $5 billion in grants would go to energy efficiency projects in rural areas.
Finally, $40 million would fund the Energy Auditor Training Grant Program.
Most of these items do still fit within the four-bucket concept of decarbonization as described by the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy director of building energy technology, David Nemtzow.
In that analogy, electrification is its own bucket. The Senate essentially side-stepped that bucket entirely to focus on fuel-neutral measures.
The items Czarnecki noted generally fit in the energy efficiency bucket that tops Nemtzow’s list or address the industry’s personnel needs.
The Budget Elephant
The infrastructure bill may seem like the elephant in the legislative room these days, but it is actually the smaller of two elephants on the move at the moment.
While the infrastructure bill contains what could attract sufficient two-party support in the Senate, Congress’ upcoming budget resolution is expected at approximately triple the infrastructure bill’s estimated cost, and it is being crafted with the expectation of attracting no Republican support whatsoever.
In that context, the budget bill may offer a home to HVAC-related items in the American Jobs Plan outline that did not make it into the infrastructure bill. Possibilities include efficiency and equipment requirements for federal construction, deep retrofits, and other measures serving larger electrification ambitions.
Additional provisions for school, child care, and health care facilities are also possible, judging by the American Jobs Plan wording.
However, needing sufficient approval from only one party instead of two has not guaranteed smooth sailing for whatever formal budget legislation emerges, either. Some disagreement exists within House Democratic ranks on the best way forward, with some members pushing for the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill before moving on to the more progressive budget. The House majority is not large enough to sustain more than a few dissenters without attracting support elsewhere.
That conflict and its management will constitute just part of the drama surrounding the budget proposal that will develop further once the House reconvenes on Aug. 23.