Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chicago Climate Action Plan: Is Your Building Ready

By Colleen Kramer, President, Evergreen Supply Company

For engineers, helping reduce their building’s energy consumption and carbon footprint has become not just a luxury but a necessity.

Pressures from building owners, a return on investment for many energy conservation measures, and the need to attract tenants who increasingly want space that is “green,” make energy efficiency critical.

The city of Chicago also requires a certain degree of compliance. In April 2009, the Chicago City Council approved an updated Energy Conservation Code for energy-efficient new and existing buildings: compliance is mandatory.

Climate change is a huge challenge worldwide but it also presents a huge opportunity, according to Karen Hobbs, first deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment, who spoke at a recent meeting of the U.S. Green Building Council-Chicago Chapter. “The goal in Chicago is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficient buildings,” she said.

Older buildings, such as the office building at 550 W. Washington in Chicago, must be retrofitted to comply with Chicago's Energy Conservation Code to reduce its overall energy consumption and carbon footprint.

David O’Donnell, the Department’s deputy commissioner, echoes the goal, noting that the problem cannot be resolved without an aggressive improvement in energy efficiency.

O’Donnell says Chicago has approximately 300 large commercial and industrial buildings which account for 23 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, 90 percent of Chicago’s power consumption is from commercial buildings. “That sector is particularly important because it can have a significant impact on reaching our energy reduction goals,” he says.

To address the issue, the city developed the Chicago Climate Action Plan (, an aggressive plan that outlines 26 actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nine actions to prepare for climate change. Chicago’s goal is an 80 percent reduction below 1990 emissions by the year 2050 and a mid-term goal of a 25 percent reduction by 2020.

The Chicago Christian Industrial League building.

As part of its plan, the city has developed numerous initiatives to help “green” local businesses, including the Green Office Challenge, Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op, Green Hotels Initiative, and the Green Museum Initiative.

“ I don’t know of another city except perhaps Aspen, Colorado, that has done the level of analysis we have done on reducing our carbon footprint,” O’Donnell says. Aspen, which is committed to a 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050, cut its emissions by 10.5 percent in only 18 months.

Even the nation’s largest city, New York, has developed a plan, announced in April 2009, to reduce energy consumption by upgrading everything from boilers to bulbs in existing buildings. The program is set to begin in 2013 with 2,200 buildings performing energy audits and a certain number of building upgrades each year for a decade.

Anil Ahuja, president of CCJM Engineers, Ltd., headquartered in Washington, DC, with offices in Chicago, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and the author of the book “Integrated ME Design, Building Systems Engineering,” believes that most building engineers are aware of what they need to do to conserve energy in the interior of their buildings. Where they fall short is in understanding how to reduce their building’s overall carbon footprint as well as how to address changing the exterior or “skin” of the building.

“ The skin of the building is difficult to address because there is only so much surgery you can do on it,” he states. “A landmark building is almost untouchable when it comes to changing the exterior.”

Cost to change the exterior is another major consideration. For example, placing window film on a building’s windows will block energy from the sun and save on cooling costs in summer and heat retention in winter. But they are expensive. Most large commercial buildings are not yet able to use solar panels but the city reduced the cost of heating water in about 20 buildings by utilizing solar technology. Rooftop gardens, which have sprouted up on a number of buildings from Chicago’s City Hall to residential structures, have proven to save about 20 percent in a building’s energy costs.

Before engineers and building owners can plan their energy conservation “trip,” they must determine a starting point, according to Ahuja. They need to ask questions such as how your building emissions rate compares to other buildings and whether your building has the potential for a rapid return on your energy conservation measures and investment.

Ahuja encourages engineers to invest in “carbon benchmarking” to measure the building’s carbon footprint, then develop a plan to address the issue. This benchmarking measurement covers the building itself but may also include energy consumption outside the building. “If 100 people work in a certain building and all drive SUVs 40 miles to get to work, how does that impact the building’s carbon footprint?” he asks rhetorically.

Ideally, building owners will set aside funds to provide energy-conserving improvements at certain intervals. The improvements are especially important for buildings that were built in the 60s and 70s and are in need of renovation.

These buildings are great targets for a sustainability plan, says Ahuja. When the building is renovated, retrofits can be incorporated to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s natural for a building’s mechanical and electrical systems to become inefficient due to obsolescence, equipment and control failures, and deferred maintenance, Ahuja explains. The result is that comfort and energy efficiency suffer. But, significant savings may be realized with relatively little expense. For example, buildings can be updated with heating and cooling systems, modernized water and lighting systems or new windows. The aesthetic upgrades and energy savings that can be realized in lighting alone has made major advances in the last few years.

“ Any building with ten-year-old lighting can realize significant and quick returns on lighting retrofits, installing, for example, compact fluorescent bulbs or LED lighting,” he said.

Making the reductions and changes won’t be easy, but it is critical. As Hobbs put it: the mantra should be “reduce, reuse and recycle.”

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