Trend to slash high-rise electric bills sweeps industry

King Kong immortalized the Empire State Building -- more than once.

And while its status as the biggest and tallest has been eclipsed a number of times since Pres. Herbert Hoover turned on the lights May 1, 1931, the iconic skyscraper continues to lead the nation. However, now it's gaining fame as perhaps the best known energy efficient high-rise.

Others have followed, drawn by the prospect of saving money in a turbulent economy through relatively simple and cost-effective upgrades that can pay off in a matter of years. The U.S. Green Building Council says green commercial building retrofits actually exceeded new construction some months in 2011.

"Deep energy savings (30 percent to 40 percent) can be mined from existing buildings," says a July 2011 study by Vancouver, Wash.-based New Buildings Institute.

Energy Star fast tracks

A barometer of the trend has been the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of cities with the most buildings qualifying for Energy Star status. Energy Star certified buildings use an average of 35 percent less energy and are responsible for 35 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than typical buildings. Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, while commercial buildings make up half that.

Sitting atop the list for 2011 and the fourth year in a row is Los Angeles. It's followed by Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco. New York is No. 6. The rankings are less interesting than the number of additional buildings making it on the list each year.

For instance, LA shows 659 buildings qualifying, a whopping 152 percent increase from 2008, the first year the list appeared. Yet, New York, which didn't even make the top 10 on that inaugural list, increased its Energy Star rated buildings by about 226 percent with 261 buildings in 2011.

The EPA estimates the nearly 16,500 Energy Star certified buildings across the country save about $2.3 billion in energy costs.

"More and more organizations are discovering the value of Energy Star as they work to cut costs and reduce their energy use," says EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a statement.

Empire leading by example

Back in 2008, the owners of the 102-story Empire State Building decided to add $13 million to a planned $93 million capital budget for remodeling. The move included 6,514 new super-efficient R7 windows, a rebuilt high-performing chiller, building automation and controls to maximize efficiencies, tenant energy management programs and other measures to be implemented.

Consulting, design and construction involved some heavy hitters, including Clinton Climate Initiative, Johnson Controls Inc., Jones Lang LaSalle, NYSERDA and the Rocky Mountain Institute. The project is expected to save 38 percent of the building's energy and $4.4 million annually, according to building officials.

Owners of the building say they did it for three reasons: to prove the economic viability of whole-building energy efficiency retrofits, to create a model for the industry and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"My wife and I have a very deep commitment to sustainability. It’s our belief that sustainable practices in everything are critical to our future," Tony Malkin, who owns the Empire State Building, tells Molly Miller of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Top 10 green buildings

Blogger Prakash T compiled a list of what he considers the top 10 green skyscrapers in the world. They range from the angular Hearst Tower in New York and the Swiss cheese inspired COR Tower in Miami to Fusionopolis in Singapore, which boasts its own ecosystem, and the strangest looking shopping mall ever, the Vulcano Buono in Italy.

Of the COR Tower, which he lists No. 1, he says: "The green features that make it one of the world’s greatest eco-towers are the wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, recycled glass tile flooring, solar hot water generation, bamboo lined hallways, and energy star appliances."

The Urban Cactus in Rotterdam, Netherlands, which comes in at No. 2 on Prakash T's list, looks like a stack of irregular levels, each boasting a garden terrace.

Cost competitive

The difference between green renovation and standard upgrade is a matter of cost. But the differential isn't as big as it would appear. Prakash says it can be just 5 percent more. USGBC's LEED program, which certifies levels of efficiency in buildings, requires upgrades that can tack 7 percent to 10 percent more onto the cost, depending on the level. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

In the United States, buildings account for about 36 percent of total energy use and 65 percent of electricity consumption, 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 30 percent of raw materials use, 30 percent of waste output (136 million tons annually) and 12 percent of potable water consumption.

There is a benefit to all this activity. In a story by Cam Burns of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Chris Allen, sales and production manager at Glenwood-based Climate Control Co., a heating, ventilation and air conditioning services company, says the energy efficiency thing works for him. "If we hadn't gotten into energy efficiency, I don't know that we'd be 34 employees at this point,” he says. “It's been kind of a savior for us. Now it is everywhere.”

Blogger John Brian Shannon sums up the situation faced by many of us: "Our choices are laid out before us just like at the shoe store -- all we have to do is choose!"