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Cutting Chicago’s Carbon Emissions Through Deep Home Retrofits

New research conducted by Elevate with the City of Chicago and ComEd uses deep retrofit packages to reduce energy use in Chicago’s single-family homes by 50%.

As climate change accelerates at a rapid pace, city and state governments are looking for climate strategies to reduce carbon emissions. One of the biggest and most cost-effective ways for cities to reduce carbon emissions is by improving the energy efficiency of buildings.

Exterior of yellow brick bungalow style home.

Single family brick construction homes build before 1942 make up about 14% of Chicago’s building stock.

In Chicago, the opportunity is even greater. Homes in Chicago are generally older, leakier, and use more energy compared to the national and regional housing stock. Most buildings in Chicago are single-family homes, and the majority of those homes were built before 1960.

In 2020, Elevate began working with the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the City of Chicago, and ComEd to look at the potential for energy savings in Chicago’s housing stock. The group initiated a three-year project to develop and test retrofit solutions that aim to show that the typical Chicago home can reduce energy use by 50%. This is just one climate action strategy that dramatically cuts carbon emissions, while also saves money for Chicago homeowners by reducing their energy costs.

Investing in Chicago’s South and West Sides

Many of Chicago’s older, inefficient homes are concentrated in primarily Black and Latinx communities on the South and West sides, neighborhoods that have historically been under resourced and disinvested in. Older, leakier homes mean that homeowners in these communities typically pay higher energy bills than other parts of the city. In Chicago, the average annual utility costs (gas and electric) for a single-family household is $2,717.

The project team identified 20 priority communities to focus retrofits on in order to drive clean energy and climate investments to Chicago’s under resourced communities. This is reflective of the Justice40 Initiative, the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to ensure 40% of the benefits of its clean energy and climate investments go to underserved communities.

Developing Whole Home Retrofit Packages

After using a modeling tool to characterize Chicago homes and understand how they use energy, the project team came up with a variety of different retrofit packages of energy efficiency measures that work for different types of homes. Depending on what benefits each home the most, the retrofit packages can include air sealing and insulation, high-efficiency HVAC equipment, LED lighting, rooftop solar, and full electrification.

The modeling of the retrofit packages with Chicago’s housing stock shows that reducing energy by 50% is not only achievable, but that even more savings are possible as more renewable energy becomes more available through the electric grid.

What’s Next?

In the next year of the project, these retrofit packages will be put to the test in a selection of Chicago homes. Elevate will begin construction later this fall, and monitor the homes’ performance for a year to measure actual energy savings.

This research will also help to inform Chicago’s citywide planning efforts to develop greenhouse gas emission reduction strategies. Beyond Chicago, this research will help inform energy planning and implementation for communities in the north-central climate region, and particularly those with similar types of housing stock.

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