Good, Thoughtful Hosts #205: Decarbonization with Tim Johnson

In our Earth Day episode, we talk with engineer Tim Johnson about why we should care about decarbonization, and how it’s done. We focus on three solutions in particular: efficiency, electrification, and clean energy. Tim gives us a few simple recommendations, including investing in clean energy and spreading the word on alternatives.

About Our Guest
With the firm since 2007, mechanical engineer Tim Johnson leads Cushing Terrell’s Boise mechanical engineering team. Tim is an outspoken champion for high-performance building design including strategies for achieving LEED certifications, Architecture 2030 goals, and zero net energy consumption. He focuses on using simulated and measured data to inform design decisions and influence industry trends while optimizing investments. When away from work, Tim enjoys kayaking, basketball, and spending time with his family in the great outdoors.

Episode #205 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
Hi, everyone, it’s Sarah Steimer. And welcome to what we’re considering our Earth Day episode. For a little history on the holiday, it was first held on April 22, 1970. And it was created to demonstrate support for environmental protection. With that in mind, this episode of Good, Thoughtful hosts will be all about demonstrating the ways in which we can decarbonize our environment, by way of design choices. We’ll be focusing on scopes one and two emissions, and what the solutions are to those problems. It comes down to three main practices that — while not as catchy as reduce, reuse, recycle — are still pretty Schoolhouse Rock-friendly: efficiency, electrification and clean energy. We’ll run through what those mean, and a great example that has 10 years of evidence to prove just how much these solutions do work.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest

Tim Johnson 01:19
I’m Tim Johnson. I’m a mechanical engineer. I work in Cushing Terrell’s Boise office and my specialty is in energy modeling.

Sarah Steimer 01:28
Awesome. So today we are going to talk about decarbonization, Tim. So first of all, what is it? And why should we care?

Tim Johnson 01:39
Good question. Yeah. We’re hearing all sorts of things about decarbonization. You see Super Bowl commercials about electric vehicles, and every major corporation and the US government and everybody is coming out with different targets on decarbonizing, we’re gonna decarbonize by 2040, 2050, and all sorts of goals out there, but I don’t think a lot of people really understand what we’re talking about. And when we say decarbonization, really all we’re talking about is removing carbon or greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. And when we’re talking greenhouse gases, that’s CO2 is the primary culprit, and that’s why we call it decarbonization. But there’s others gases that we’re also concerned about, say refrigerants and things like that, that we’ll give a CO2 equivalent value to a really that’s all we’re talking about is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So there’s three main types of emissions that we want to talk about. The EPA and others have defined the three scopes: scope one, two, and three. Scope One is direct fossil fuel combustion, that’s usually natural gas, when we’re talking about buildings are burning natural gas for heating or domestic hot water, that type of thing. Scope two is essentially indirect energy, it’s usually electricity that is brought to the building, it’s generated elsewhere, using could be fossil fuels or renewable energy. And then through the electric grid, it’s brought to the building. Scope three is a little bit more nebulous. That includes supply chain emissions, everything associated with getting materials and people and things to the building for the purpose of the business. And when we’re talking about building design, embodied carbon is the top target where I’m talking about scope three emissions. And that’s essentially the energy associated with all the material harvest, manufacturing, construction, and operations of the building. We’ll mostly focus on scopes one and two for today’s discussion. But those are the three scopes of emissions we generally talk about. So basically, the reason we should care about this is because it touches like, every single part of our life. So it’s a pretty obvious, why should we care? So you know, of course, it’s easy to go on and on about the problem, and you know, why we should have solutions. But let’s jump into some of the solutions that we do have, and like you said, we’re going to focus on scopes one and two. So talk about some of those. And you know, as we move through them, just give us a quick like, okay, so this is maybe where you’ve seen it in your life, for example. Sure. So I think there’s three main things that we want to do to reduce emissions, or at least that can fit into three categories. First is efficiency. Next is electrification. And then the third is clean energy. So I’ll kind of hit those one by one starting with efficiency. Efficiency is the lowest hanging fruit. Sometimes this means replacing light fixtures from old incandescent or fluorescent to LED lighting. And often those will have paybacks in months to a year range, a lot of low-hanging fruit, especially in existing buildings out there on the efficiency side. Some of these are even more complex and require redoing an HVAC system for example, and gain a lot of efficiency with HVAC systems. So balancing that efficiency, especially on existing buildings, is tricky. How much investment do we want to put into efficiency compared with, you know how much renewable energy we might want to invest in. Newer buildings tend to be much more efficient. But we still have all sorts of opportunities to reduce energy consumption. Electrification has been talked about quite a bit on this episode and all over the culture at the moment. But that’s step one in a new building is starting with as much electric energy as possible, and then making that as efficient as possible. So using tools like energy modeling, we can simulate how the building might operate before we even start the design of the building. So we test out different systems, we test out different materials, and we pick the ones that are going to have the most impact on on our building, and essentially start with the end result in mind, we’ll simulate say maybe 1,000s of different alternatives and arrive at the one that meets the building goals upfront. So efficiency is the place where everybody can start, there are things you can do to improve the efficiency of your home or your office. And it’s as simple as maybe even turning off the lights or making sure your computer monitor’s off is step one, all the way up to a little more expensive efficiency measures like HVAC systems.

Sarah Steimer 06:18
I want to pause real quick before we move on from efficiency and just emphasize what you mentioned that I think a lot of people don’t realize. You mentioned that there could be you know, we can see results from you know, these more efficient practices within months. You know, I think a lot of people believe that it takes a while for some of these practices to have effects. But you’re saying that they’re actually a little bit faster than we may have realized.

Tim Johnson 06:43
Yeah, that’s right. Especially things you can just go plug in, say, replacing your incandescent bulb with an LED, you’ll see the savings immediately. In some of these things. Building controls is another big one. There’s all sorts of buildings out there that just aren’t operating the way that they should be. And it’s because maybe nobody has seen the issue and the building is comfortable. And so things just keep going on as they have been but just building tuneups like that may have very little upfront costs can have immediate energy savings and energy cost savings right up front, some of these measures that don’t actually have a quick payback. There’s funding mechanisms out there from local utilities and the government. The inflation Reduction Act, the IRA, has released billions of dollars for energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy upgrades to residential and commercial buildings. So it’s something for everybody to take a look at when they’re thinking about decarbonizing or improving the efficiency of their building.

Sarah Steimer 07:43
Sure, I also I love the phrase building tune up, you know, I think it is sometimes helpful for us to think of buildings not as just, you know, these final things that exist, but if you think of it like a car, you do have to take it in and regularly get it serviced. So I really liked that phrase a lot. So let’s move on to our second solution now for decarbonization.

Tim Johnson 08:04
All right, yeah, let’s talk electrification. And I won’t go into too much depth here, because we just did a podcast on electrification. Alex did a great job of going through that. But I want to talk about some of the maybe the misconceptions behind electrification. When we’re talking electrification, sometimes people think of it as just kind of the magic bullet, we electrify everything, and we’ll have decarbonized our buildings. And that’s not the case, at least not yet. Right now, electricity actually has a higher carbon emissions intensity than natural gas, that’s definitely planned to drop. But as we increase the load on our electric grids, we’re gonna have to make up that energy somewhere. And there are times when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow. Now, for example, I’m sitting here in Boise, Idaho, and midwinter we get these inversions, where the air kind of settles, there’s no wind, and it creates these clouds and a little bit of pollution in the air. So there’s not very much sun, we’re gonna have to come up with ways of generating power, even during the times when renewables aren’t doing us any good.

Sarah Steimer 09:04
Of course, there was just the news that we are going to do more gas drilling, things like that in the US, which everyone can have their opinion about that. So it’s not as though those things aren’t necessarily going away. But these solutions with electrification that we’ve talked about, in this episode and others, you know, there are opportunities to maybe save some of that energy or consider what else we can use. So I just wanted to mention that since it was truly just in the news today, it’s it’s not as though things have disappeared. Of course,

Tim Johnson 09:35
We’re still waiting on technology. I think there have been breakthroughs in fusion energy just in the last six months. Hydrogen is an alternative that lots of folks are considering. Expansion into geothermal energy. There’s all sorts of things that we’re talking about for clean energy that will help the electric grid and I think this is probably a good point to make at this point is that when we’re talking net zero carbon and zero carbon, those mean very different things. Net zero carbon generally looks at things on a yearly basis. So we could over-generate using solar, for example, during the summer when the sun’s out and it’s, it’s a good angle for generating electricity. But then in the winter, we would under-produce and rely more on the grid. And so over a year, the amount we’ve generated is equal or greater to the amount we’ve used. So that’s, that’s net zero carbon. And that solves some issues. And the technology is pretty close to there, right now, using solar and heat pumps and things like that, we can get pretty close to net zero carbon or net zero energy on a yearly basis. Really, the target needs to be zero carbon, and that’s making sure electricity is clean all the time, you know, looking at things maybe on an hourly basis, how is this energy generated? Where does it come from? And how do we make consistent clean energy even when renewables aren’t available?

Sarah Steimer 10:59
I’m glad that you that we did kind of make that pause and clarification when you talk about this sort of thinking on the minute about where things are coming, reverses, okay, well, this big chunk is when we use this, and then we’re going to balance it during this big chunk. It sounds — and please correct me if I’m wrong — it sounds kind of similar to the ability that we have to purchase energy offsets when we take a flight, for instance, is that is that kind of similar to what we’re talking about here?

Tim Johnson 11:28
Yeah, essentially, those offsets mean something, you’re probably investing in some sort of other renewable energy or carbon sink, could even be planting forests or something like that. But once you’ve spent that carbon, it’s already emitted into the atmosphere, and it’s difficult to take it back out. The challenge is keeping the emissions from happening in the first place.

Sarah Steimer 11:49
Right. So instead of eating a piece of cake, and then following it up with a stick of celery, have a regular balanced diet. Let’s now talk about that third solution that I’m going to go ahead and just say, you already said it: clean energy.

Tim Johnson 12:04
Right, let’s say we’ve taken efficiency as far as we can, we’ve electrified the buildings so that we can create the clean energy. Now it’s a matter of how do we, how do we get that clean energy to our buildings, on-site solar, or on-site, renewable energy is about the cleanest solution here, we’re consuming the energy right where we need it, right, we’re generating and consuming in the same spot. It’s renewable. There’s some embodied carbon associated with solar panels, or wind turbines, or whatever the technology ends up being. But for the most part, this is this is very clean energy. And we don’t have losses when they’re transmitting through the grid. It’s generated and used on site. But you know, we talked about some of those limitations. So micro grids is one of the technologies that has been growing over the last decade or so when we talk about community scale, the economics of solar plus battery storage, plus maybe another technology maybe like combined heat and power, where we are consuming fossil fuels for now, but at a much lower carbon intensity than we would at the utility scale. So that gives us kind of a transition technology until the next one comes online via hydrogen or micronuclear or something like that. And that allows us to provide a central power system serving it could be a community or a campus or something like that on a larger scale, but much smaller than the utility scale, and can do these things a lot more efficiently.

Sarah Steimer 13:37
So that was an excellent sort of overarching view of these three big solutions, or like you mentioned, our scope one and two. I was wondering if you do maybe have an example, a case study for us where maybe all three of these were integrated into a project that you worked on?

Tim Johnson 13:57
Yeah. So maybe 10 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked us to design a visitor center for them on the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Nevada. And they wanted this to be net zero energy. So our job was the building in the site. And we had never really gotten out this before we’d never tried it. We started with what we call a charrette, where we bring all the different entities all different trades, the building owner, the contractor, bring everybody together and discuss different ideas for the project, to see what fits within the budget. And also what’s going to have an impact on energy and the end user. So we took all these ideas, and then we just kind of tested them. I would sit next to the architect, and he’d say, what if we did this and so I’d quickly build it up in my computer model. And pretty quickly we were able to figure out what is going to have the greatest impact and energy efficiency for this building and which ones really don’t matter all that much. And so where we landed was a building envelope that is insulated a little bit beyond code. The glass on the building is used sparingly, but still provides the views and the daylight that we want inside the space. And then we went with the ground source heat pump system, which is a very efficient way of heating and cooling using the steady ground temperature 10 feet or more below the surface, and then made up the rest with roof-mounted solar photovoltaic to generate the entirety of the energy on site on a yearly net basis. Going back and looking at it for the last almost 10 years now, it’s still generating more than it’s consuming. So that is a net zero building. So that was kind of our first foray into this issue of decarbonization. And since then, technology has really exploded on the software side. So now rather than sitting down with the architect and throwing ideas back and forth, we can automatically create, say, 1,000 of those different ideas we had, and simulate them all at once. And then rather than starting from these ideas, and working our way toward the end goal, we start at the end goal, since we’ve already simulated the options and then work our way backwards to see which different energy conservation measures were most effective and work those into our designs. So that’s an approach we take on most of our projects. Now, last year, we modeled about 2 million square feet of buildings. And when I say modeled, we’re looking at energy efficiency, we’re trying to keep efficiency as good as possible. But we also want to maximize daylight and views outside, we want people to have that quality daylight interact with the spaces around them. And we’re finding that these modeled projects are saving a lot more energy than projects just built to code.

Sarah Steimer 16:38
I think that idea of starting with what your goals are, what that endpoint is, and kind of working backwards. I don’t know if I’m certain that you know, other people in your field understand that, you know, this isn’t necessarily unique. But for the rest of the audience, you know, I think that’s so interesting, because you figure, most of us, when we do anything, we kind of have our hopes for what will happen, but we don’t really know what the exact results are, what the data is more than likely going to be at the end. So I just think that’s a really interesting piece of this. Well, one of the last questions I had for you, Tim. And you know, this, of course, kind of goes back to the theme for this season kind of thinking about the 15-minute city and how the decisions that we make with our built environment really impacts the full community. Taking an example like the project that you just described, what have the ramifications over the past 10 years been to not just that building, but the surrounding community, the people who interact with that building, what are sort of the ways in which everyone who comes into contact, everything that comes into contact with this very carefully thought-out building, talk through that a little bit for me, if you would.

Tim Johnson 17:50
Sure. On an individual basis, there’s things that we do. Let’s say we’re electrifying. We’re going with heat pumps, we’re efficiently using glass, we’re making these quality spaces, we’ve done our part on the individual side. But you’re right, that does have an impact on the community and the local utilities, especially as we start to move from natural gas to electricity for heating, the demand profiles at the utility scale change. And one of the things that a lot of utilities are working on is demand response. And so that may be working with a local utility to change your thermostat setpoint during times of peak demand, just to cut back on the demand at the utility scale. Other things that are available to most of us on the community side is being able to invest in solar projects, local utilities or or others are giving opportunities to buy green power, invest in solar developments. And so you can actually, here in Idaho, invest in solar panels that are located out at a utility site. You can invest in those panels and they can provide energy for your facility. And then I think just kind of spreading the word. I think everybody’s excited about decarbonization right now, I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And just spreading the word on what’s effective, what’s not, what are the technologies that are here, which ones are coming. You know, when I started doing a lot of this energy modeling, maybe about 15 years ago, we were discussing whether we should go with LED lighting or fluorescent lighting. And now in new buildings, it’s almost always LED lighting because it’s cost effective. It’s easier on the maintenance side. It’s kind of a no-brainer. I feel like PV, solar photovoltaics, are at that point right now where we’re at the 10-to-15-year payback here in Idaho where power is cheap. And we’re getting really close to this just being a no-brainer that we’re doing on-site renewable energy on all of our projects.

Sarah Steimer 19:56
It of course takes enough people kind of being the leader, enough organizations, enough companies being the leader and actually putting these things into play, and then everyone else kind of looks at it and says, Oh, it is possible. Versus kind of waiting for maybe your utilities to change, which, you know, I’m sure that will happen eventually, but not right now. Well, Tim, thank you so much for taking some time to talk about this with us today. This is, of course, sort of our Earth Day episode, we’ll call it, but was there anything related to this conversation that I didn’t ask you about that you just wanted to mention?

Tim Johnson 20:31
One thing I would like to see more is we’re seeing all of these climate commitments, and a lot of them are for 2030 to 2050. And it seems like right now, it’s it’s good press to do that. But I would really like to see meaningful steps taken now. I think there’s a lot of technologies that are available, they’re cost effective. I’d like to see things moving that direction now and meaningful steps and planning that out, rather than just making these big press releases on carbon reduction.

Sarah Steimer 21:06
That’s a perfect way to kind of tie this up, too, because, you know, we started off talking about the fact that it’s exciting that there are things you can put into place that you’ll see results from within months. And then you know, you also mentioned partway through the episode that we need to be thinking even sometimes more minute by minute with these things. So I think the idea of maybe goal markers like at this point, we do this, this point, we do that, and then maybe by 2030, or 2050, we’ve done all of these different things. I think that’d be really exciting to see an organization come out and have more monthly, annual, whatever it may be goals that they’re trying to hit and that they will hopefully hit.

Tim Johnson 21:46
That’s right. And now’s the time to do it. There’s all sorts of incentives being poured in from the local utilities and the U.S. government. Let’s take advantage of those while they’re around.

Sarah Steimer 21:55
Awesome. Well, again, Tim, thank you so much. It’s really been a pleasure talking with you.

Tim Johnson 22:00
Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Producer 22:09
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold, and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast visit Thanks for listening.

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