On paper, the Department of Energy's (DOE) Better Buildings Challenge is rather modest. Gently push U.S. industrial and commercial building owners to commit to cutting energy consumption 20 percent or more over 10 years — a very small drop in the global carbon bucket. But the program is turning out to be much more transformative, by driving building owners to reach for deep decarbonization goals rather than just the low-hanging fruit.

Homes, offices, universities and industrial facilities consume a third of all the energy in the world. In the United States alone, these buildings account for over $400 billion a year in energy consumption. Without a doubt, buildings are one of the largest sources of energy demand in the world and a key component of any climate mitigation strategy.

In most cases, large building owners have approached decarbonization conservatively: start with the easiest (and of course cheapest) opportunities first. Switch out some light bulbs for LEDs. Recycle. Install motion sensors in low-traffic rooms to control lighting. While these actions are steps in the right direction, they don't necessarily add up to globally meaningful carbon reductions.

If we're serious about addressing climate change, building owners need to go bigger. But in the absence of significant government incentives, how is deep decarbonization in buildings possible? A small program within the DOE — the Better Buildings Challenge — is trying to answer that question, and it may be on to something.

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The program's premise is really simple and low-cost: Set a broad building efficiency goal, get some early buy-in, share best practices and facilitate some competition to push building owners into action. It's an experiment steeped in past energy efficiency policy successes, such as the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Energy Star program, which creates energy efficiency certifications for consumer products (e.g., appliances) that industry can voluntarily follow.

One of the main actions both programs are trying to incentivize is culture change. Maria T. Vargas, director of the Better Buildings Challenge, found that one of the biggest hurdles to building efficiency is the organization itself: "There is often no senior level management buy-in to energy efficiency programs. As a result, building owners aren't pushing the boundaries or getting creative."

Without large federal incentives to dangle in front of senior management, the DOE had to get creative and come up with direct ways to show building owners it was feasible to economically cut energy consumption. According to Vargas, "The most important output from our program is the playbooks, which any organization can pick up and use. It's like a clearinghouse of best practices from those that are pushing the boundaries. And what's most exciting is that organizations and companies are starting to copy these playbooks."

Yet, by themselves, best practices among building owners mean little to deep decarbonization unless they actually push the boundaries of what is possible. The Better Buildings Challenge needed building owners that were willing to take risks and act as a showcase for others hesitant to join in. Fortunately, many alacritous and willing building owners took the dive.

For instance, the University of California, Irvine signed onto the Better Buildings Challenge, but exceeded the 20 percent energy savings challenge seven years early and reset their goal higher to 40 percent by 2020. In fact, UC Irvine has surprised many by proving it could squeeze 60 percent energy savings from its laboratories — the most difficult buildings at a university to deeply decarbonize due to strict health and safety regulations.

Wendell Brase, UC Irvine's vice chancellor for administrative and business services, found that "The key for us was to set a goal that is really challenging and requires risk, not status quo. Many universities sign the [University Presidents' Climate Commitment] and after a flurry of initial activity, they just stall out."

According to Brase, UC Irvine chose to address its most difficult efficiency challenges first — its dozens of laboratories — to get buy-in from university officials and change its culture around how it manages its buildings. Over 150 retrofits and renovations have been completed to date, including 13 lab renovations, changes to heating and ventilation, data center efficiency projects, and smart information technology upgrades.

Most importantly, UC Irvine has paved the way for other building owners. "There are a lot of labs and universities like UC Irvine," Brase argues. "What we're doing is very exportable. There is a lot of energy waste designed right into university buildings because energy is relatively cheap and there traditionally hasn't been any urgency to worry about it."

It is that exportability that is making the Better Buildings Challenge a critical driver of deep carbon cuts, instead of just a sleepy federal program. And from Vargas's point of view, they're only getting started: "The leadership Better Buildings Challenge partners provide creates momentum in the marketplace and a clear path to drive greater energy efficiency at an accelerated and ambitious pace."

Stepp is the executive director of the Center for Clean Energy Innovation at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.