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Building on Chicago’s Reputation as a Green Building Leader

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) recently released its 2015 Top Ten States for LEED list, naming the U.S. states that lead the nation in sustainable building design, construction, and transformation. For the third year in a row, Illinois topped the list of total square feet of LEED-certified space per resident. The majority of these LEED-certified buildings can be found in Chicago, a city that has numerous programs and policies to encourage green building.

Chicago is LEEDing the way

In 2002, the Windy City opened its Center for Green Technology, which has since closed, but was the first rehabbed municipal building in the country to earn a LEED platinum rating. Two years later the City passed a law that all new Chicago municipal buildings be LEED certified. Chicago is also the first city in the nation to offer an expedited building permit to encourage green building. The Green Permit Program can shave as much as $25,000 off the building permit process. The city now has 124 LEED-certified buildings, bringing the number up to 161 LEED-certified buildings in Illinois.

The city has implemented other initiatives to reduce energy consumption including Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Building Initiative, which challenges large, private building owners to reduce energy use by 20 percent over 5 years; and the Green Office Challenge that encourages commercial offices to adopt sustainable practices. The Commercial Buildings Initiative includes more than 50 buildings with over 40 million square feet. And the 2014–15 Green Office Challenge included 170 offices, saving over 690,000 kWh. Also, in 2014 the City implemented a building energy benchmarking ordinance, which is a core component of several city-based initiatives to reduce energy consumption in the building sector.

However, there is still a lot more to be done. Chicago buildings spend $3 billion per year on energy and emit 71 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Chicago’s recently released 2015 Energy Benchmarking Report found a potential of 13–24 percent reduction in site energy use among the 1,840 properties reporting. This translates into $100–184 million in energy cost savings, and 795,000–1,400,000 tons of avoided greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to removing 167,000–306,000 cars from the road. That is why RMI’s Commercial Energy+ Initiative (CE+) plans to build on the city’s leadership in generating increased demand for energy efficiency in buildings by developing a cost-advantaged commercial building retrofit model that can deliver at scale.

Beyond New Construction

“There has been a lot of great work undertaken on new construction codes and policies, and building off of this platform the USGBC’s LEED certification program has done an outstanding job of promoting the opportunity in new construction and major renovations,” says Koben Calhoun, a manager in RMI’s buildings practice. “However, we cannot simply build our way to a more energy-efficient future.” The vast majority of our current building stock will still be in place in 2030. This is especially true in the commercial buildings market, where over 75 percent of existing large commercial buildings will still be in use in fifteen years’ time.

“There is an immediate need for a more industrialized approach, one that will reduce cost and simplify the decision-making process for buyers,” says Iain Campbell, managing director of RMI’s buildings practice. “This new approach requires a platform that can provide relevant, fast, capital-light, and affordable building energy retrofits.” The CE+ approach is to provide a package of configurable, ready-to-deploy efficiency measures and technologies that can be procured and deployed at scale to make buildings immediately smarter, more energy efficient, and more interactive with the electricity grid.

The development of an industrialized approach to commercial energy retrofits fills a unique market need. By bringing cost-optimized components together into configurations that take advantage of economies of scale, building owners can access practical low-cost integrated solutions that deliver consistent results and enhance overall building value and shareholder returns.

By 2017, we expect that 50 of Chicago’s commercial buildings will have successfully deployed this new approach and that the model will be scaling in two additional cities. Our goal is to enable the doubling of the rate of adoption of commercial building energy retrofits across our nation’s major urban centers by 2021, resulting in deployment across a cumulative billion square feet of commercial building space over this period.

In the U.S., buildings consume 41 percent of our total energy use, using more energy than every country in the world except China and the U.S. Driving down energy consumption in buildings is key to realizing the COP21 target to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C. We believe that our continued work in Chicago, building on the city’s success with LEED-certified buildings, will demonstrate an approach that can serve as a model for real estate markets across the nation.

Photo courtesy of Jareed via Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).