Converting Buildings to All-Electric: A Path to Sustainable Development

Federal Electric Building Conversion to Demonstrate Green Energy Goals With $6.2 Million Projected Annual Utility Savings

Converting Buildings to All-Electric: A Path to Sustainable Development

Federal Electric Building Conversion to Demonstrate Green Energy Goals With $6.2 Million Projected Annual Utility Savings

An increased focus on reducing carbon footprints and embracing sustainable practices, championed by the federal government, has brought the conversion of buildings to all-electric systems as an emerging strategy. Shifting existing buildings to 100% electric power can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance energy efficiency, lower operational costs, and improve overall environmental performance.

The recent award of a contract by the General Services Administration (GSA) to convert the Reagan Building and International Trade Center, the largest government building in Washington, D.C., to electric power marks a significant milestone in this transition.

There are significant benefits, challenges, and some innovative strategies associated with retrofitting buildings to all electric power, with a focus on sustainability and environmental stewardship.

A photo of the entrance of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center
The first federal building to be converted to all-electric utility use is also the largest government building in Washington, D.C. Johnson Controls won the project, estimated at $22.7 million.

The Case for Converting Buildings to All-Electric

Buildings account for a significant portion of global energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, buildings are responsible for approximately 26% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. Converting buildings to all-electric systems presents a unique opportunity to reduce these emissions significantly.

One of the key drivers behind the shift to all-electric buildings is the need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and transition to cleaner sources of energy. By replacing traditional heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems powered by natural gas or oil with electric alternatives, buildings can significantly reduce their carbon footprint. Additionally, all-electric buildings are more efficient, as electric appliances tend to be more energy-efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts.

The headline graphic for, the website for the Federal Sustainability Plan.
The U.S. government’s stated goal is for all federal buildings in the nation to create net-zero emissions by 2045 and achieve a 50% greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2032.

That is why the Biden-Harris Administration announced close to $1 billion in federal funds to “make federal buildings cleaner and more energy efficient,” tagged as part of the Federal Sustainability Plan and funded by the Inflation Reduction Act to upgrade federal buildings nationwide. The goal is to achieve net-zero federal building emissions by 2045.

The GSA’s First Project: Converting the Largest D.C. Building to Electric Power

The recent GSA contract award to convert the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center to electric power underscores the federal government's commitment to sustainability and energy efficiency. The project, funded at $22.7 million and awarded to Johnson Controls, will not only reduce the building's carbon footprint; it also serves as a model for future projects seeking to achieve similar sustainability goals.

The GSA has been given $975 million from the 2022 Climate Act and expects to leverage another $1.9 billion in private-sector funds as they work to meet the Sustainability Plan goal of net-zero emissions by 2024.

By converting an existing building to all-electric use, the GSA project demonstrates how existing infrastructure can be leveraged to achieve federal sustainability goals while minimizing the environmental impact of new construction.

Elliot Doomes, GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner, stated in the press release for the contract award that the…

“GSA is excited to be making this investment in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. This project will not only use clean energy technologies to lower energy costs, but it will also create good-paying local jobs and reduce harmful carbon pollution, making it a win-win for the federal government, local D.C. residents, and taxpayers.”

Specifically, the Reagan Building conversion will fully electrify the site with heat pump technology, remove the building from the central steam plant system operated by the GSA, and is expected to reduce both energy use per square foot and greenhouse gas emissions by over 50%.

Projections put the annual utility cost savings upon completion at more than $6.2 million.

Converting existing buildings to all-electric use brings several obvious benefits, particularly long-term utility cost savings. However, there are specific design and planning concerns that come into play when retooling existing facility infrastructure for sustainability.

In 2023 BOMA released a study on “The Electrification of Commercial Buildings” that cited, among other key takeaways that:

“Smart electrification options and approaches vary by region and by building type; building owners will need to evaluate what works best for their specific buildings. Similar technologies and approaches can apply at portfolio levels, but each building will need its own specific solution.” –

Planning for specific building and existing utility footprints, regional and municipal regulations, leasing constraints, and workforce development – having a professional workforce prepared to provide accurate existing condition assessments prior to conversion – and those trained to complete electrical conversion and sustainable installation (like installing solar panels), are all major considerations.

The Benefits of Converting Buildings to All-Electric

Converting buildings to all-electric use offers a range of benefits, including:

  1. Reduced Carbon Footprint: By eliminating the use of fossil fuels for heating and cooling, all-electric buildings can significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Energy Efficiency: Electric appliances and systems tend to be more energy-efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts, leading to lower energy consumption and costs.
  3. Improved Indoor Air Quality: Electric heating and cooling systems do not produce combustion byproducts, resulting in improved indoor air quality.
  4. Enhanced Resilience: All-electric buildings are less vulnerable to disruptions in the supply of fossil fuels, making them more resilient to external shocks.

Challenges & Considerations

While the benefits of converting buildings to all-electric are clear, several challenges and considerations must be addressed:

Cost: Converting existing buildings to all-electric can be costly, requiring investments in new infrastructure and appliances.

Infrastructure Requirements: All-electric buildings require adequate electrical infrastructure to support increased electricity demand, which may necessitate upgrades to existing electrical systems.

Regulatory and Permitting Challenges: Converting buildings to all-electric may require compliance with building codes and regulations, as well as obtaining permits for new construction and renovations.

Tenant Considerations: For buildings with tenants, converting to all-electric may require buy-in from tenants and adjustments to lease agreements.

Strategies for Converting Buildings to All-Electric

To successfully convert buildings to all-electric, several strategies can be employed:

  1. Capturing accurate existing conditions for both the structure itself and the subsurface utility infrastructure is step one for any planning & design phase. Knowing what you’re working with provides informed and efficient decision-making.
  2. Energy Audits: Conducting energy audits can help identify opportunities for energy savings and efficiency improvements.
  3. Adopting a Phased Approach: Converting buildings to all-electric can be done in phases, starting with high-impact areas such as HVAC systems and water heaters.
  4. Gathering Incentives and Financing: Governments and utilities may offer incentives and financing options to help offset the cost of converting to all-electric.
  5. Cementing Stakeholder Engagement: Engaging stakeholders, including building owners, tenants, and contractors, early in the process can help ensure a smooth transition to all-electric.

The conversion of buildings to all-electric represents a significant opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, and enhance overall sustainability. The recent GSA project to convert the largest building in Washington, D.C., to electric power is a testament to the feasibility and benefits of this approach. By embracing all-electric systems and sustainable practices, construction professionals and VDCs can play a key role in driving the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Does Converting to All-Electric Utility Use Impact the Building’s Energy Efficiency?

This is entirely dependent on the source of the electrical utility and the construction or renovation of the building to include energy-saving specifications. As noted above, projections for annual utility savings are in the millions of dollars per building. Installing efficient systems like heat pumps and solar panels can greatly increase efficiency.

Is It Possible to Convert Older Buildings with Outdated Infrastructure?

Virtually all the buildings covered by the GSA’s funding are decades old or older, with many dating back more than 100 years. With proper planning, based on accurate building infrastructure information and subsurface utility mapping, virtually any building can be converted to all-electric use. The largest impediment in most cases is cost. However, accurate existing condition documentation that provides comprehensive as-builts can help eliminate a large portion of budget overrun concerns.