U.S. mayors forge a new climate for greener buildings

The new word from City Hall is coopetition.

In a world where metropolises are vying to be seen as climate (or cleantech or green) leaders, some mayors are concluding that they can move further, faster by cooperating as well as competing.

It’s a new chapter in the story of resilience: Climate leadership is being reclaimed by local government, as cities increasingly partner with companies and share knowledge and resources with other cities — all while competing to leverage sustainability to attract residents, businesses and tourists.

This week, mayors from 10 major U.S. cities announced a united effort to significantly boost energy efficiency in both city and private-sector buildings, potentially reducing emissions equivalent to taking 1.5 million passenger vehicles off the road every year while lowering energy bills by $1 billion annually.

Called the City Energy Project, the new initiative from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation is designed to create healthier, more prosperous American cities by targeting their largest source of energy use and carbon emissions. The first 10 cities include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City.

Granted, it’s not the usual list of progressively minded cities.  In fact, that’s exactly the point, says NRDC president Frances Beinecke: These 10 cities were selected ”to demonstrate that every city in the country can do this,” she said.

Funded in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation, City Energy Project will inject $9 million over the next three years into local economies, enabling collaborations to help these 10 cities boost building energy efficiency.

“We have the skills and technology to make buildings more efficient, but we need a coordinated effort by major cities and the private sector to make it happen,” said Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation. “The City Energy Project will give city leaders and the real estate industry the support they need to make buildings better, improving the lives of millions of city residents.”

Why buildings in cities?

If the objective is to reduce carbon with quick, significant returns, City Energy Project has hit a sweet spot. Buildings represent 40 percent of carbon emissions nationwide, a number even larger at the city level: More than half of emissions in most U.S. cities come from buildings, larger than either the transportation or industrial sectors. Focusing efforts on intelligent building management is proving to be an immediate, cost-effective solution for cities to reduce their contribution to climate change. It also conveniently increases energy resilience, reduces demand for new power plants, improves air quality and gives local economies a boost along the way.

“Energy efficiency creates jobs, lowers energy bills, and is a cornerstone of constructing a sustainable future,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Los Angeles has long been a leader in environmental policy and we look forward to working with cities around the country to jointly implement policies that stimulate our economy, save money, and reduce our carbon emissions.”

City Energy Project’s focus on buildings is enabling and garnering an impressive degree of collaboration across sectors. It’s bringing together local city governments and social-profit organizations with major players in commercial real estate and financial institutions, including CBRE, Jones Lang LaSalle and Goldman Sachs.

“As a global leader in bringing energy efficiencies into commercial buildings, Jones Lang LaSalle strongly supports the City Energy Project for building partnerships between local governments and the real estate community to advance energy efficiency,” said Robert Best, the investment company's Executive Vice President, Energy & Sustainability Services. “We intend to be actively engaged in the City Energy Project, as both a public advocate and as a building manager, to expand and strengthen these valuable partnerships across the participating cities.”

The key to greener cities

Over the next three years, the 10 participating cities will be supported in designing and implementing plans to advance efficiency and reduce energy waste in their large buildings, representing roughly 50 percent of their citywide square footage.  Leveraging the strength of multiple, integrated strategies, these plans are expected to make more progress than any one program or policy could alone.

While the City Energy Project will offer their energy expertise to help craft localized plans unique to each region, the efforts are united towards a core set of goals:

  • Promote efficient building operations: Strong building energy performance can be achieved through efficient operations and maintenance, and the training of facilities personnel.
  • Encourage private investment: Common-sense solutions to financial and legal barriers to energy efficiency should be adopted to increase private investment in building energy improvements.
  • City leadership: Cities should lead by example and reduce taxpayer-funded energy consumption in municipal buildings, and encourage the private sector to match their actions.
  • Promote transparency: Building energy performance information should be transparent and accessible to enable market demand and competition for energy-efficient buildings.

“With U.S. buildings consuming more primary energy than countries like Russia and India, the scale of the opportunity to optimize building energy performance is significant,” said John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer, UTC Building & Industrial Systems. “Cities collaborating and implementing creative, practical energy efficiency polices can go a long way to reducing America’s $450 billion annual energy bill and carbon emissions.”

Image by K.Oksana via Shutterstock