Chicago Steps Up Retrofit Pledge, But Is It Enough?

Last month, in anticipation of the Better Buildings Summit that took place June 26-27 in Denver, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel extended the Retrofit Chicago program (a city-specific response to the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge) to commercial buildings.

Originally, the program applied solely to municipal buildings, such as City Hall and the Harold Washington Library. Last year, RMI’s Michael Bendewald blogged about it and analyzed the potential for Chicago to generate three- or four-times more than the expected 15 percent to 20 percent energy savings (and up to a 15 percent return on investment) by applying deep energy retrofits to the buildings.

Chicago’s recent announcement  is significant because the addition of fourteen private buildings adds 14 million square feet to Chicago’s energy reduction pledge while generating an extra $5 million in annual energy savings on top of an expected $20 million.

However, while impressive on the surface, when spread over the additional square feet the savings on the commercial retrofits amount to only $.36/sq. ft./year. Therefore, this additional announcement adds relatively little energy savings to Chicago’s pledge but increases its square footage dramatically.

Going deeper, as Bendewald wrote, would uncover the full potential of Retrofit Chicago’s commercial addition.

For example, when the Beardmore Company, in conjunction with the Runberg Architecture Group, Ecotope, Inc. and WC Tomlin, retrofitted the Beardmore building, a commercial facility in Priest River, Idaho, the deep energy retrofit process led to a reduction in operating expenses of $.81/sq. ft./year. These savings are 125 percent larger per square foot than the private component of Chicago’s Better Buildings Pledge.

Efficiency measures utilized in this deep energy retrofit included installing high-efficiency HVAC package units with economizer controls, along with a demand control ventilation unit with CO2 sensors. Additionally, the design team added extensive insulation to the exterior walls and added coatings with a high solar reflectance index to the roofing, which reduced the building’s heat island effect.

Though the Beardmore retrofit was on a relatively small scale (29,000 sq. ft.), RMI has helped complete large-scale deep energy retrofits of municipal buildings, such as the Indianapolis City-County building, a 731,000 sq. ft. complex in Indiana. Before the deep energy retrofit process, the facility had an Energy Star rating of 50, but after the retrofit, the rating jumped to 95, corresponding to an operating expense reduction of $1.03/sq. ft./year. If Chicago were to employ a similar deep energy retrofit strategy to its private pledge, the city could potentially reach a level of energy reduction that is $.67/sq. ft./year (or 186 percent) bigger, corresponding to additional annual savings of $9.38 million. Savings of this scale would go a long way toward furthering Mayor Emanuel’s vision of making Chicago the most sustainable city of the 21st century.

The Better Buildings Challenge is a program that aims to provide technical assistance and solutions to commercial and industrial business owners who are striving to make their facilities more energy efficient. The recent “Better Buildings Summit for State and Local Communities” is an example of how the Better Buildings Challenge is generating enhanced synergy between the program’s partners.

Among the cities with the largest pledges are Atlanta (pledging 20 percent reduction in energy intensity by 2020 in 33 million sq. ft.) and Los Angeles (pledging 20 percent reduction in energy intensity by 2020 in 30 million sq. ft.).

According to its presentation at the Better Buildings Summit, the city of Los Angeles is anticipating a payback period of only 6.5 years on their current pledge, partly due to the planned 16 percent reduction in electricity use alone. The city of Atlanta has primarily focused on improving the energy efficiency of its 400-block downtown central business district, which includes City Hall, the Civic Center, and numerous banks. As of May 31st, 2012, the city has saved 184,167 million BTUs of energy, showing the dramatic progress it has made toward meeting its Better Buildings Challenge Pledge.