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News > Context Winter 2024 > Feature: Completing the Connection

Feature: Completing the Connection

Building Electrification, Clean Energy, and Advocacy
Graphic: Danielle Fleischmann, Brian Smiley, Kevin Malawski 
Graphic: Danielle Fleischmann, Brian Smiley, Kevin Malawski 

By Brian Smiley, Danielle Fleischmann, and Kevin Malawski 

As our region strives to achieve a more sustainable future, the increasing momentum toward building electrification poses an opportunity to phase out fossil fuels and improve occupant health. There is an enormous opportunity for Pennsylvania to encourage energy efficient electrified buildings, with more stable energy costs while simultaneously creating new jobs. However, there are well entrenched interests that are impeding this clean energy opportunity and we are at risk of falling further behind our neighboring states. There are large infrastructural changes that urgently need to get underway so that these new electrified buildings can be supplied by clean energy. But first … what are electrified buildings? 


It is likely you are already discussing electrifying buildings with your clients. Even if you are not able to design fully electrified buildings now, there are design changes architects can implement to make the future transition easier, healthier, and better long-term investments for clients. 

The first step [Figure 1] is replacing combustion sources with electric alternatives. One of the most common solutions is the heat pump. Heat pump performance has rapidly improved in recent years making them a viable alternative to fossil fuel combustion sources. To spur manufacturers in creating higher performing heat pumps and battery storage solutions, leading MEP firms signed a letter in January 2020 requesting rapid development of these systems. In addition to replacing our active Heating and Cooling equipment with electrified systems, we must also employ high performance envelopes that reduce the amount of work that the electric equipment must do. Finally, we must strive to produce energy on site and store what cannot be immediately used.  

By electrifying our buildings and eliminating locally burned fossil fuels, we improve the health of our citizens. New York City is phasing out the burning of #4 fuel oil in Manhattan, which is a polluting fossil fuel which contains lung-damaging fine particulates and sulfur. The pollutants from something as benign as a gas stove include formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, benzene, particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), and numerous other harmful chemicals that contribute to long term respiratory illnesses, asthma attacks and increased hospital visits.  

From an asset management standpoint, building owners may be concerned with buildings that are reliant on price fluctuating fossil fuels [Figure 2]. They may end up with a ‘stranded asset’ or a devalued building which is difficult to sell when surrounded by fully electrified options. Even if an owner is not ready to go all electric now, they may be amenable to preparing for full electrification in the future. The counterpoint to building electrification is that there are currently some all-electric scenarios that may have more overall greenhouse gas emissions than buildings partly reliant on natural gas combustion. This is due to a grid that is predominantly supplied by fossil fuel burning power plants. However, as the grid becomes supplied by more clean energy sources, these buildings will also reap climate benefits without the need for additional investment.  

This highlights the dilemma we face as architects. To affect real change in our communities, we must expand our thinking and act on a broader scale. To be confident that electrified buildings will offer tangible climate and health benefits, we must ensure that the electricity is coming from responsible and clean sources.  

To truly mitigate climate change, electrified buildings require clean energy generation sources. Big infrastructure changes are required to generate and transport this clean electricity to our buildings and large electrification projects are starting to take shape across the country.  

The SunZia Transmission project recently broke ground in New Mexico that will provide clean electricity to more than 3 million homes, which is more energy than the Hoover dam. So why should Pennsylvania Architects care about a project in New Mexico? There are concerns that the SunZia project will set a precedent for rapid approval of similar projects on sensitive lands or in migratory pathways, with some stakeholders saying environmental studies still need to be completed thoroughly. But on the other side, there are risks to postponing laying the groundwork for clean energy. Soon we will be having similar conversations in Pennsylvania as other large-scale transmission and energy storage projects are proposed to support the infrastructure for electrification. The recent announcement of Philadelphia as a Hydrogen Generation Hub further stresses the importance that these large infrastructure projects need to preserve the environment for future generations. In fact, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution [Figure 3] demands it. We must start planning now to ensure these projects can proceed while allowing enough time to conduct the necessary environmental due diligence. 

If big infrastructure changes are required, why isn’t more happening in Pennsylvania? 

The fossil fuel industry is deeply entrenched within Pennsylvania. Our state is the second largest natural gas producer in the country and fourth in Carbon Dioxide Emissions per the Energy Information Administration (EIA). While there are strong commercial interests that want to continue burning fossil fuels, there is broad support in Pennsylvania to reduce our reliance on them. Approximately 73% of adults are in favor of carbon impact fees being assigned to fossil fuels according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Despite this support, our current elected body in Pennsylvania is fighting against joining the Regional GreenHouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that would implement fees on emitters. These fees reflect the true environmental harm of carbon pollution, and help clean up emissions from current polluting sources, while mitigating environmental damage from decades of past fossil fuel extraction and pollution. No other industry dumps their waste into public areas without paying the full cost of it. Additionally, RGGI funds will aid our transition to renewable energy sources, support high performance buildings, electrification, and workforce training for local construction jobs. Pennsylvania has already missed out on $1.25 Billion in proceeds from prior auctions. Our neighboring 11 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states are participating in the RGGI carbon market and have used the proceeds to effectively aid the clean energy transition and make energy more affordable for low-income households while supporting job creation and training. The Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania released a report in May, reporting that joining RGGI would cause only a minor increase in retail electricity prices and possibly a small decline, countering the arguments of those opposed to joining RGGI. 

Pennsylvania is also severely lagging in our mandated minimum renewable energy contribution to our electricity grid [Figure 4]. Currently it’s only 8% (with 0.5% from solar), which is much lower than most of our neighboring states according to the Pennsylvania Solar Center. Even if this increases to 30% as part of a proposed update to the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS) Act, we are still being outpaced by nearby states and risk losing jobs, expertise, business, and residents to states more receptive to clean affordable renewable energy. In 2021, there were over 92,000 clean energy jobs in PA and this figure is anticipated to jump to 250,000 more jobs with the growth in Pennsylvania’s clean energy sector over the next decade. 

In addition to AEPS, there are other solutions for producing and conserving clean energy such as energy storage, gravity/water/battery banks, net metering, smart meters/ grids, and virtual power plants. There is also growing traction in several states to return utility ownership to residents, rather than for profit utility companies. This will help state owners invest in clean energy compared to private investors that may not share the same desire for clean air. While the scale of grid improvements, generation ownership, massive projects similar to SunZia and hydrogen generation hubs go beyond the boundaries of individual buildings, what this makes abundantly clear is that we need to act collectively and unite with other groups that share the common goal of a clean energy future. 

Recent policy legislation and the tipping of the scales.  

Recent federal legislation [Figure 5] has set the precedent for the transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources. The “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation (BIL), and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are aiding the clean energy transition at national, state, and local levels. They allocate +/- $16.5 billion towards improving the resilience and reliability of our power grid infrastructure while creating good paying clean energy jobs. This legislation is tackling the issue at both a regional infrastructure and building scale. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that was passed in 2022 is still running through regulatory protocols, yet there are a number of programs on national, state, and local levels that are currently available for use by building owners and design professionals. Architects can leverage these opportunities to increase electrical infrastructure, encourage energy efficient design, and raise awareness of the issues associated with fossil fuel use. 

In addition to grants and tax credits, there are other provisions in the IRA which will make it possible for non-profit and university owners to directly claim incentives for geothermal energy, and electrochromic glass. The IRA is also expanding tax breaks for residential energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy systems. 

For both commercial and residential tax credits the applications are coming in much faster than the government had originally estimated; making it easier for owners to electrify with solar, microgrids and heat pumps in their projects. 

At the State level, there are a number of programs coming online from the IRA in 2024 that will provide nearly $270 million for energy efficiency, resiliency, and electrification. 


One of the core funding mechanisms of the IRA is the High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Act (HEEHRA) that will be administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). It will allocate $4.5 billion nationally to provide rebates for electrified appliances and equipment to lower and middle-income households. Approximately $225 million of this is earmarked specifically for Native American Tribes. 

The recent passing of the “Whole Home Repairs” (WHR) program promoted by Senator Nikil Saval will provide further assistance in the form of $125 million towards repairing aging housing stock to make it both habitable and more energy efficient. While funding is currently at an impasse, the program would help stabilize Pennsylvania communities one house at a time. 


Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy or CPACE is an existing program that provides financing on solar, high-performance equipment, and lighting for new and renovation projects. This program works similar to a second mortgage and allows lenders to offer low interest loans that are paid back from the implemented and verified energy savings. This program has been in place in Pennsylvania for several years and was recently expanded to include multi-family housing, water conservation, resiliency, and indoor air quality projects. 

At the state and national levels, the IRA and IIJA/ BIL will help building owners transition to clean, renewable, stable energy sources. Within Pennsylvania, there are proposals to adopt the latest building codes and introduce Building Performance legislation in Philadelphia, aligning with initiatives such as New York City’s Local Law 97, Boston’s BERDO 2.0 and Washington DC’s Building Performance law. 


AIA Philadelphia and AIA Pennsylvania Committees on the Environment (COTE) have policy committees that track, endorse, and originate legislation that supports building performance and electrification. If there is one takeaway from this article, it is we need you to join these Policy and Advocacy groups to help influence policy and effect change. Clean electricity is a challenge larger than any one project, therefore Architects must get involved in National, State and Local advocacy. Acting now will help Pennsylvania make big changes that preserve jobs and the environment for the betterment of all citizens.  

Brian K Smiley AIA, CDT, LEED BD+C is a Senior Project Architect & Sustainability Leader at HOK Philadelphia with 30+ years’ experience leading teams in the development of award-winning science & technology projects. Brian has extensive experience with high performance design, is a recognized sustainability leader throughout the state and is the 2024 President of AIA Philadelphia, current Chair for the Committee on the Environment (COTE) for AIA Pennsylvania, and Chair for the Philadelphia COTE Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee.  

Danielle Fleischmann is an Architect at DIGSAU who currently serves as co-chair of AIA Philadelphia Committee on the Environment. She also co-chairs the group’s Policy and Advocacy subcommittee to promote legislation and awareness related to Electrification, Embodied Carbon, and Adaptive Reuse. In her free time, Danielle maintains an urban garden in her Philly yard and enjoys playing the piano.  

Kevin Malawski is the Director of Advocacy for AIA Philadelphia and a founding principal at Karbon Architects in Philadelphia, PA.  

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