October 23, 2014
Installing motion sensing thermostats and replacing inefficient lighting in the city’s largest buildings are just two ways Chicago is hoping to win a competitive environmental challenge that could save millions.
Chicago’s inclusion in the City Energy Project — announced last month — is in part a way of overcoming barriers between landlords and tenants when it comes to energy efficiency in the city’s largest buildings, according to Becky Stanfield, Midwest policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Chicago is among 10 cities participating in the project, which involves building owners taking the reins on reducing electricity in their buildings — the largest single source carbon emissions in the United States, representing 40 percent nationwide, according to the defense council.
The city that winds up winning the challenge will be held up as an example to the others — that is, the ideas used to reduce carbon emissions from the winning city will be shared with the other cities. And then there’s the other green benefit: Building owners and their tenants could save money by reducing the amount of energy consumed.
Chicago’s tall buildings are responsible for 71 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and are the source of about $3 billion spent in operating costs, according to the mayor’s office. In New York City, about 75 to 80 percent of greenhouse gases come from large buildings, according to Bloomberg News.
“One of the big problems is that there are split incentives between building owners and the building tenants who may or may not see the all the benefits in investing in a lighting retrofit, for example, because they don’t own the building. If they don’t own, they don’t make capital improvement for the most part,” Stanfield said. “The project is looking for creative ways to align the incentives of the land tenants of the building so we can address efficiency both in common space and tenant space, where so much of the energy is consumed.”
Thirty-two large building owners in Chicago are already working to reduce emissions, participating in the city’s Retrofit Chicago Commercial Buildings Initiative. The Hilton Hotel Chicago on Michigan Avenue and the Franklin Center on Monroe Street are just two buildings whose owners have committed to cutting energy needs by 20 percent during the next five years through energy efficiency improvements.
According to Stanfield, the Franklin Center began working to motivate tenants to take advantage of retrofitting their lighting, which in turn saves them money. Owners are using a program offered by ComEd, which rewards a $60,000 bonus if the company can reduce energy use by one million kilowatt-hours.
“This obviously is great for buildings in terms of reducing the costs, also reducing environmental impact and then also enhancing their brand value,” Karen Weigert, the city’s chief sustainability officer said about Chicago’s involvement in the project. “It also raises the profile of these companies that are taking on this leadership effort.”
The city in turn has in the past worked to help the building owners, granting a U.S. Department of Energy efficiency permit in just five days: “We try to make it as easy as possible, to encourage them to participate.”
Weigert says there are also many easy ways for buildings to reduce energy that cost nothing, in terms of investment.
“It can be like turning off lights. You can also do things like putting on sensors, occupancy sensors that will signal when to turn off, and switching to more efficient kinds of lighting,” Weigert said.
As part of the project, each city is given a technical adviser. Weigert has already spoken to Chicago’s adviser, who’s availble for day-to-day strategizing on reducing emissions.
“We’ll get a sense of what’s good, what’s helpful, what works,” Weigert said. “There will be an element of shared value. With 10 cities involved, it will impact hundreds and thousands of buildings, which will lead to an extraordinary impact.”