New York City’s buildings, long the city’s biggest pollution sources, are slowly being cleaned up by an array of new initiatives, from a phaseout of dirty heating oil to revamped building codes.
One of the more intriguing green strategies—and easily one of the cheapest—is simply to post each building’s energy use online for all to see.
Such a move could have a transformative effect on the city, environmentalists and architects say, giving valuable information to tenants while prodding owners to invest in cleaner, greener design.
“Con Edison measures energy use every month, so why don’t we use that to give a building a green rating?” asked Henry Gifford, a New York City architect. “When will the first contest for the lowest Con Edison bill be held? How can everybody be running around and saying that energy is important to our economy, to world peace and to the planet, and not be measuring it?”
In fact, New York City is already taking steps in that direction.
By of the end of July, large buildings with over 50,000 square feet were required to report their energy and water use to the city. Energy use in commercial buildings will begin to be posted on a public website in 2012, with residential buildings following suit in 2013.
That strategy builds on a similar initiative for city-owned government buildings, which had their energy use posted on the city’s website last month.
“A couple of years ago there were some changes made in the building codes in New York City, and those were really focused on taking information and putting it into the hands of people who can make decisions,” said Andrew Darrell, the New York regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
With city tenants armed with detailed information about a building’s energy use, owners and operators may have to clean up their act, said Richard Leigh, director of research for the New York branch of the U.S. Green Building Council.
“This is going to have a totally extraordinary effect, we’re completely confident, on building performance in the city,” Leigh said. “Because all of a sudden, when a tenant is thinking about moving into a building, they’re going to be able to look up the energy use in that building and tell an owner they don’t want to live in a building that’s an energy hog.”
The city’s building stock has plenty of room for improvement. Buildings produce about 75 percent of the city’s carbon emissions, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC sustainability program, the driving force behind the green campaign. The vast majority of the city’s existing buildings are expected to still be standing in 2030, prompting the push to improve them and not just set stricter standards for new construction.
“As we saw from things like the Empire State Building retrofit, most buildings in New York City could be upgraded to reduce their energy consumption by as much as 40 or 50 percent,” Darrell said. “So basically we’re wasting close to half of the energy that we use.”
The new energy disclosures for large buildings will also begin to fill a gap in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings, which certify new or retrofitted buildings if they meet a wide range of environmental benchmarks.
A relatively small number of high-profile buildings in New York City, such as the Bank of America Tower and the Hearst Corporation’s midtown headquarters, have been awarded plaques for their efficient and sustainable construction and design, but some critics have blasted the ratings for failing to measure actual energy use.
Some of that criticism is warranted, acknowledged Leigh, whose U.S. Green Building Council colleagues in Washington, D.C., oversee LEED certification.
However, the program is broad-based, taking into account other factors like use of recycled materials and selection of building sites that minimize environmental damage, Leigh added. And updates to the program give more weight to energy efficiency while also requiring newly certified buildings to submit energy use, though still not publicly.
That continued lack of disclosure is largely why Gifford is so critical of the LEED program, which he calls “my industry’s excuse for building really, really bad buildings, and for everyone to hide their actual energy bills.”
If LEED’s certification plaques—silver, gold and platinum—aren’t based on actual measurements and can’t be revoked, they are of little value, Gifford argued.
“All these plaques should be attached with removal screws,” he said. “Otherwise there is no incentive going forward for a building’s owner, occupants or operators to do anything properly.”
New York City’s new disclosure rules could start to change the equation. Of course, the rules only cover about half of the city’s square footage and a slightly smaller percentage of its greenhouse-gas emissions.
And it’s an open question how clear or accessible the energy use figures will be, and how easy it will be to compare buildings, when the information is eventually posted.
“If you’ve ever tried to figure out your energy bill and what goes into it, your electricity bill and how to bring it down, it’s a hard thing to do,” Darrell said. “If you had the information in your hand, and if it showed up in an easy-to-understand way—if buildings were graded almost like restaurants, which are graded on the cleanliness of their kitchens—why not grade buildings in New York City the same, according to how much energy they save?”
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