All posts by Justin Koscher and Curt Rich

Insulation Retrofits for Residential, Commercial, and Industrial Buildings Cut Energy Use and Carbon Emissions

The insulation industry commissioned ICF, a globally recognized firm with expertise in the energy and energy efficiency fields, to answer the question: How much can we reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by investing in cost-effective, easily achievable insulation improvements to existing single-family homes and commercial and industrial buildings?

The answer is eye-opening and the opportunity immense. Insulation improvements achievable with today’s technology can significantly contribute to lower carbon emissions in buildings through reduced energy and fossil fuel use. How immense? The impact to the studied building population is the equivalent of increasing current wind production by 135 percent or offsetting the emissions associated with 40 percent of total natural gas-fired generation in the United States.

The findings are instructive for environmental leaders searching for solutions to immediately and rapidly decarbonize the existing building stock, a sector that is responsible for approximately 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Insulation improvements should be a critical component of any environmental policy and support the deployment of other technologies, including clean energy generation, that can further reduce the environmental impacts of heating and cooling homes and buildings.

Drilling down a little more into the report, other interesting findings include:

Residential Buildings:

For existing homes, ICF assessed the state- and national-level energy and emissions savings benefits as well as the economic benefits that could accrue over 50 years as a result of the implementation of code-compliant insulation retrofits.

  • Energy savings ranging from 10 to 45 percent can be achieved in existing homes that are air sealed and have insulation added in the ceiling and floors (and walls in very limited circumstances) to levels prescribed by the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code.
  • Nationally, this retrofit activity could yield roughly 10 billion tons of carbon emission reductions over a 50-year period – the assumed useful life of building insulation. This is equivalent to eliminating over 25,000 natural gas-fired electrical generation power plants for a year, the annual energy use of over 1 billion homes, or operating nearly 3 million wind turbines over a year.

Commercial Buildings:

The study assessed the impact commercial roof and pipe insulation retrofits would have on state- and national-level energy use, energy costs, and carbon emissions on an annual basis and over a projected 30-year service life. ICF analyzed a range of commercial buildings, including schools, small to midsize office buildings, midrise apartments, and stand-alone retail.

  • Insulation upgrades reduce energy use in primary schools by an average of nearly nine percent and secondary schools would save an average of more than seven percent.
  • Upgrading roof and pipe insulation in just 25 percent of existing commercial building floor space in the U.S. would save more than 700 therms of natural gas each year, or the equivalent of having 800,000 fewer gasoline-powered passenger vehicles on the road.
  • Over a 30-year service life of these insulation upgrades, cumulative CO2 equivalent emissions savings reach nearly 360 million metric tons. This is equivalent to the annual energy use of more than 45 million American households.

Industrial Buildings:

The study also assessed the state- and national-level energy and emissions impacts as well as the economic benefits that could accrue over a 20-year horizon from the installation of code-compliant steam pipe insulation in a select number of manufacturing sectors.

  • Making pipe and mechanical insulation improvements to industrial facilities in eight major industrial sectors (Chemical, Food, Paper, Petroleum and Coal Products, Primary Metals, Nonmetallic Mineral Product, Transportation Equipment, and Plastics and Rubber Products) would save these sectors more than $126 billion in energy costs based on an average capital cost of $3.77 billion. The average payback on this investment is about one year. For many industrial sectors, the payback is as little as six months.
  • Energy savings from insulation upgrades can reduce natural gas use by 118 billion therms across the U.S. industrial sector and help reduce demand on the electric grid as electrification technologies roll out.

Learn more about the results of study by reading the Executive Summary and downloading the Insulation Opportunity Study full report.

About the authors: Justin Koscher is President of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association. Curt Rich is the President and CEO of the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association.