Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday July 18th, 2014, 3:17pm

Chicago Commercial Buildings In Retrofit Program Making Progress To Cut Energy Use

In the first two years of the Chicago Commercial Building Initiative, participating buildings have cut their collective energy use by seven percent compared to their 2010 baseline, officials with the city and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said Friday.

The seven percent reduction in energy use is the equivalent of avoiding 28,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or taking some 5,800 cars off the road for a year. 

Over the past two years, the 32 commercial buildings enrolled in the voluntary program reduced their collective energy use by switching to more efficient LED lighting; installing motion sensors connected to heating, cooling and lighting systems; upgrading heating and cooling systems with better ventilation fans and motors; and improving tenants' office-space efficiency.

As a result of these and other retrofits, participating commercial buildings have saved a collective $2.5 million in annual energy costs and "are creating jobs through the course of this program," the city of Chicago's Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert said on a conference call with reporters.

"To do this requires a lot of partnership, and we are working to break down barriers and make it easier for buildings to join and to have these kind of results," Weigert said. "There are huge partnerships strengthening this opportunity every day from utility programs — where our buildings have taken advantage of $2 million in incentives — to road maps that have been created, to programatic support, even to full page ads that have run in the paper as the program has grown."

Launched in June of 2012 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Chicago’s Commercial Building Initiative aims to boost energy efficiency among commercial buildings larger than 200,000 square feet in the city. Buildings that voluntarily participate in the initiative pledge to reduce energy consumption within five years by at least 20 percent, based on a facility-specific baseline from two years prior to joining the initiative. Committed buildings start energy efficiency work within six months of signing up for the program. They also serve as ambassadors to other buildings interested in increasing energy efficiency.

The Commercial Building Initiative is one part of the Retrofit Chicago program, the city’s cross-sector effort to improve energy efficiency in commercial, municipal and residential buildings.

Fourteen commercial buildings joined the Retrofit Chicago's Commercial Building Initiative when it first rolled out two years ago, and another 18 participants jumped on board in March of 2013. This month, the program has expanded again to include an additional 16 university, commercial and cultural buildings, bringing the total number of participants to 48 and the square feet of committed space to 37 million.

Weigert said it costs $3 billion a year to heat, cool, and operate government, non-profit, commercial and residential buildings in the city. 

"Those buildings are responsible for 71 percent of the carbon emissions coming out of Chicago," she noted. "So Retrofit Chicago and our work there is about capturing those opportunities."

The NRDC is one among many Commercial Building Initiative partners. 

"By squeezing waste out of the energy system, we're squeezing pollution and carbon from the air, in addition to making Chicago much more innovative, much more competitive and better working," said Henry Henderson, director of the NRDC's Midwest program. 

The NRDC released a report Friday about the "best practices" and "lessons learned" in the first two years of the initiative. 

"Things we learned in this are very clear," Henderson said. "Visible mayoral leadership and support with a wide, very diverse cross-sector collaboration among public, private, non-profit and utility partners make it effective to overcome many barriers in commercial markets to actually retrofit our buildings."

Henderson noted that Chicago's Commercial Building Initiative could serve as a one example for how U.S. states can reduce carbon from the energy system, a requirement of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed carbon pollution regulations for existing U.S. power plants

The Chicago retrofit program "shows how this can be done in ways that spurs the economy, makes the system work better and meets a challenge with a set of opportunities that can be scaled up," he said. "It shows how Illinois, specifically, is in a position to benefit, and to make this happen in way a that turns a challenge into a huge, huge benefit. [At the] same time, we're significantly building our resiliency and economy. We're significantly reducing pollution and meeting a global and local challenge, with regard to climate."

The one million square-foot AT&T building, at 225 W. Randolph St., is one of the 14 founding participants of the Commercial Building Initiative. Since the program has launched, the building, which has 30 stories of administrative space, has already met the five-year target of reducing energy consumption by 20 percent, said John Schinter, AT&T's assistant vice president of energy and smart buildings. Among many other retrofits, Schinter said LED lighting systems were installed in the building to allow for "per-fixture dimming or shut off based on ambient light conditions or desk occupancy."

"We have already seen the 20 percent reduction that we've committed to, and we're very excited to continue down the path," he said. "We have additional measure's that we're still undertaking, so we're not stopping here."

He added that the "collaboration here in the city with these kinds of activities allowed us to really kind of take these best practices and deploy them across the country to, our case, thousands of facilities across the country." 

Schinter's example of taking lessons from the AT&T building and applying it to other facilities elsewhere shows "this is clearly scalable, clearly relevant and can be essential to transforming our energy system," Henderson said. 

Click through to learn more about other buildings taking part in the initiative, including their energy efficiency efforts, accomplishments and next steps.

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