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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: Decarbonizing new and existing buildings across Michigan

Ann Arbor 2030 District logo
Ann Arbor 2030 District
Ann Arbor 2030 District logo


Jan Culbertson is a founding member of the Ann Arbor 2030 District.

Specialties: LEED AP, Architecture, Sustainable Design and Building Decarbonization, Health Facility Design, Education Facility Design, Master Planning, Renewable Energy.


Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Ann Arbor 2030 District

Jan Culbertson on LinkedIn

A2Zero Carbon Neutrality Plan

2023 Michigan Climate Summit

Inflation Reduction Act of 2022


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to the June edition of First Friday Focus on the Environment. On the first Friday of each month, we explore topics of vital environmental importance to our area and to the state of Michigan. We do so in partnership with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and its executive director, Lisa Wozniak. This month, Lisa has invited a special guest to help us discuss ongoing efforts to decarbonize our homes and buildings with a local and state goal of achieving carbon neutrality. Lisa, great to have you back today.

Lisa Wozniak: Thanks, Dave. There are so many components of dealing with and adapting to the climate crisis and what we do with our existing and future housing and building developments is certainly one of them. Our guest today is at the center of these efforts. Jan Culbertson is the leadership chair for the Ann Arbor 2030 District. Jan, thanks so much for making time today.

David Fair: Yes, very glad to have you here for the conversation.

Jan Culbertson: It's great to be here. Thank you.

Lisa Wozniak: The City of Ann Arbor has a goal of carbon neutrality by the year 2030, and Washtenaw County wants to get there by 2035. And these kind of initiatives are being put in place and implemented throughout the state. Are local and county governments being too ambitious based on what you see statewide, Jan?

Jan Culbertson: I think they're in a leadership position, which is a great place to be because there's a lot to accomplish and the sooner we get to it, the better off we are locally and globally.

David Fair: Lawmakers in the state Senate have introduced legislation to move Michigan to 100% carbon-free clean energy by 2035. How important is upgrading and retrofitting homes, businesses, and buildings in achieving those ambitious goals?

Jan Culbertson: It's essential. Globally, buildings contribute about 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions, and that increases if you include embodied carbon. So, decarbonizing our buildings is going to take a little bit of time. So, it's really important to start on it right away. And there are actually five components to building decarbonization. And most people can, you know, get on that journey right away.

David Fair: Well, that brings us to that question of how exactly do you define building decarbonization?

Jan Culbertson: Sure. So, building decarbonization is a process by which you reduce and ultimately eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. And buildings really have three components of energy use. One is building operations, which is, you know, the everyday use of the buildings. Then, there's also greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation of deliveries, the fleets of commuting with buildings. And then, the third component is embodied carbon, which is the greenhouse gas emissions that come from all of the products that are used in construction and renovation.

David Fair: This is 89-1 WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak is here. And we're talking with Jan Culbertson, who is leadership chair for the Ann Arbor 2030 District.

Lisa Wozniak: Building codes and regulations vary from community to community. And do you think that we need a statewide standard for new housing and building development that mandates as close to zero carbon emission construction as possible?

Jan Culbertson: Actually, we have a statewide building and energy code, and that code is being updated as we speak. There should be a new energy code by the end of the year. And in the energy code, there's a residential portion of the energy code in a commercial portion. And we do have the opportunity to mandate what's called a zero code, which would basically bring all new buildings to net zero carbon once it was enacted. So, it is really important that we act on the on the state level.

David Fair: I would imagine, as there often is with any new regulation, there's going to be some well-funded pushback. And the arguments would likely be based on the cost of housing and building development going up and becoming increasingly unaffordable. How do you respond to that?

Jan Culbertson: Yeah. It is true that as the technologies and so forth were emerging, especially heat pumps and so forth at one point, were more expensive. And they have been just like renewable energy. They've been dropping in pricing. And it's also about designers, architects, builders, contractors, all understanding how to build differently. And as we can lead in that, the Ann Arbor 2030 District has launched a series of implementing the A2Zero plan, which is Ann Arbor's carbon neutrality plan. And we've been having a series of speakers that have been able to do that successfully, including with affordable housing.

Lisa Wozniak: Well, that's a perfect transition to the question I wanted to ask, because there's a lot of old and well-lived in communities that have to explore how best to essentially retrofit existing structures to energy efficient, carbon neutral or carbon free environments. And that's the majority of what needs to get done as well. As you know, you've touched on the new builds. But last year, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which will provide billions of dollars to states to help reduce carbon emissions and boost clean energy and much, much more. How far do you think this can take us down the decarbonization line?

Jan Culbertson: It's incredibly helpful because there are a whole series of things from a federal standpoint with the Inflation Reduction Act for both new and existing construction. And we also have in Michigan, in the DTE area and also Consumers Energy, they also have programs that are incentive based. So, the first step, you know, anyone can do and they can do it rapidly, and that's energy efficiency. You want to make sure that your lighting, your HVAC systems and so forth are all working as efficiently as possible. And then the second step is renewable energy. People all over have access to renewable energy, and the IRA has reinstituted the 30% tax credit. And what's new in the IRA is that all nonprofits and municipalities and so forth who didn't have access to that tax credit now have a direct pay. So, this makes renewable energy and also the transition to say, for instance, geo exchange systems and heat pumps much more affordable. Then, after renewable and onsite or offsite renewable procurement, you want to make sure that was grid integration and storage. And then, ultimately, everyone needs a plan for building electrification. How are you going to move all of your heating and your hot water to an all electric and cooking process and equipment?

David Fair: Our conversation with Jan Culbertson continues on 89-1 WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. And, of course, all of these efforts need to have an environmental justice and equity lens through which they are implemented. Home heating and cooling: huge expenses for families, especially for low income households. So, how do we ensure that the investments, the building upgrades, the retrofits are targeted at the communities most in need?

Jan Culbertson: Mm hmm. And, yeah, that's an incredibly important point. And what I'm really proud of, what the City of Ann Arbor has been doing, especially in the Bryant neighborhood, they just received a grant to do some planning for a geodistrict exchange system for that neighborhood. And if that can move ahead, that's one of the most efficient ways to electrify. And also, being able to provide renewables for both nonprofits and low-income housing is much more affordable now. And the City of Ann Arbor is also launching a concierge program. It's helping people walk through the whole decarbonization process, and they're really targeting folks that are in lower-income areas.

Lisa Wozniak: So, we've heard a lot from corporations and utility companies about reducing carbon emissions, using carbon offsets and credits and carbon capture. Do these methods really address the issue in your mind?

Jan Culbertson: They will help. I think we are going to have to do some carbon capture because especially around industrial processes--you know, the cement industry, the steel and metal industries--use a lot of energy, and a lot of it is fossil fuel-based. And so, transforming those industries is going to take a lot of time. So, yes, we will need to, you know, invest in some carbon capture and carbon offsets.

David Fair: Well, as we speak, Jan, the Michigan Climate Action Network is gathering at Oakland University with people from around the state at its annual climate action summit. What do you expect to come out of today's gathering that might help us all advance in the mission of decarbonization?

Jan Culbertson: Well, I am of the philosophy that you do things faster together. And I think as people come together and share their experiences, their barriers, the way they've overcome things, and also get the state on an agenda that really prioritizes decarbonization, well, it'll be a win-win for everyone.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for your time and sharing your perspective today, Jan. I appreciate it.

Jan Culbertson: It's great to be here. Thank you very much.

David Fair: That is Jan Culbertson, the leadership chair for the Ann Arbor 2030 District and our guest on WEMU's First Friday focus on the environment. And a thanks to my partner in this monthly conversation segment. Lisa Wozniak is the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And Lisa, we'll see you the first Friday in July.

Lisa Wozniak: I look forward to it, David.

David Fair: I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU-FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.