Empire State Building

Evolution or revolution? Clean energy movement is expanding

The Great Recession left the economy in shambles and turned lives upside down, but it forced more people to  cut spending and energy and, in some ways, was a good thing, according to a survey of more than 2,800 consumers and business people by Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions.

The 2012 survey revealed people and businesses are more aware of the cost-cutting potential of energy efficiency, that younger adults have strong appetites for clean technology and that businesses are setting more aggressive energy goals - in large part because their customers demand it.

"Customers care, so companies do too," the report states.

Authors noted that near two-thirds of businesses surveyed said their customers want more environmentally considerate solutions, up from 49 percent only a year ago. Meanwhile, more than 75 percent of those businesses actively promote their green campaigns.

The surveys found that businesses continue to invest in energy efficiency even as finding capital becomes more challenging, and as a majority of them acknowledge it is hard to track available financial and tax incentives. The companies are motivated by the strong cost savings and competitive edge associated with energy efficiency, but public good - "it's the right thing to do" - also is a catalyst.

Employers also are becoming more interested in carbon emissions. Almost eight in 10 surveyed said cost of carbon should be factored into use of traditional energy sources, and 72 percent say they plan to acknowledge it on their balance sheets - up from 58 percent a year ago. However, they also overwhelmingly said it is difficult to measure carbon with any confidence.

One of the most surprising findings was that 61 percent of the consumers surveyed said the recession taught people to become more efficient and responsible. "...It reminds us what is important," the report quoted the respondents saying. Almost two-thirds said they would support a mandatory surcharge on their electric bills to support alternative energy intended to reduce pollution and to add American jobs.

Natural gas is gaining favor among consumers, although over half still want their utilities to invest in solar and wind power.

Here are links to a blog post about the survey and to the reports here and here.

The findings reflect what our nonprofit has noticed: the green movement is accelerating. Business, real estate developers and landlords, the military and even professional sports realize that going green is good for multiple reasons.

This story notes  the San Francisco 49ers are using low CO2 concrete in their new stadium because they want to reduce their carbon footprint. Meanwhile, the owners of the  iconic Empire State Building say their energy retrofits will save them $4.4 million per year - a 3-year payback. Now, that's a good investment! More here.

Some analysts describe an evolution ; others describe a revolution., Whatever it is, it is clear that clean energy and energy efficiency are gaining a higher profile.

Photo of Empire State Building by Eggo

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!"

It's the economy; Energy efficiency gains big believers

Bill Clinton said it best: "It's the economy, stupid."

The former president reiterated his economy comment in a piece in Newsweek, offering energy efficiency measures as several of 14 ways to jump start the U.S. economy and create jobs.

He's hardly the first. The corporate sector, utilities and governments are swapping out old lighting and inefficient energy-hungry systems like crazy. Why? It saves money.

This rapid embrace of energy efficiency over the past couple years has a lot to do with money. IBM says it's saved $50 million since 2008 through energy saving and conservation measures. "Bottom line; it pays dividends," the company said in a statement.

Converts are signing up in droves. Wal-Mart, an early believer in sustainability, played a big part in expanding the movement's reach. For instance, the retailer has provided more than 100,000 of its global suppliers with a sustainability survey and encourages them to embrace energy efficiency policies.

Utilities also are playing a major part, especially in California where representatives work one-on-one with clients to install retrofits and save money and kilowatt hours. While they are somewhat inspired by financial incentive, most of these reps have become some of the best educated on how to adopt energy-saving measures for the least amount of money.

Efficiency-aware utilities are hardly limited to the Sunshine State. On the north side of the continent, Yukon Electrical Co. and Yukon Energy launched an innovative program with Ottawa, Ontario-based One Change, a nonprofit that encourages people to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors, including energy efficiency.

One Change is helping the utilities get feedback from residents in far-flung places like Carmacks, Teslin and Dawson about what conservation measures they think will work in their communities, said Sara Haskill, the organization's marketing manager. Many of the communities in the program "are quite isolated and have limited resources. Yukon is also not hooked up to the North American grid."

But people who live in these harsh lands know better than most what works and what doesn't. When it's 50 below, a poorly insulated house requires three and four times what a super-insulated house needs in terms of heat. Northerners also tend to be quite careful (one mistake and you're a human Popsicle) and imaginative.

"We are definitely looking forward to hearing what the people in Yukon have to say," Haskill says. "We are expecting some innovative thoughts. Stay tuned to our web site/twitter/facebook in the coming months."

Who knows? The next big idea that creates 100,000 jobs might come from a Canadian in Old Crow.

In the meantime, here are some more traditional measures:

1. Lighting. Go with compact fluorescents, T8s or even T5s, using digital ballasts. Install occupancy sensors. Try LEDs. Their price is dropping. I bought my first bulb last week.

2. Insulation. Load up. HGTV's Mike Holmes tells his viewers to go overkill, R-40 in ceilings or more. Weatherize. I insulated my floor last winter. California home didn't have a thing. Reduces cooling costs, too.

3. HVAC. Yeah, it's expensive, but newer and more efficient air conditioning units or furnaces pay for themselves. Seal up existing duct work or add new stuff.

4. Electric motors. In this category, I'm thinking pumps and other items that draw a lot of power. Go with premium efficiency or variable frequency drive.

5. Roofs. Paint 'em white. Go with a cool roof if you can afford it. The savings payback works. Clinton offers up this one as well.

Speaking of Clinton, he's got a couple more in his Newsweek piece.

6. Copy the Empire State Building. The iconic structure is the epitome of energy efficiency these days after a costly makeover by its owners. The building now stands as a monument of how to successfully retrofit structures erected far before we came up with the concept of greenhouse gas or net-zero.

7. Utilities. Get them in on the energy efficiency retrofit action, Clinton says. "You wouldn’t even need banks if states required the electric companies to let consumers finance this work through utility savings."

And diversify. Waste Management, the company that hauls trash for many of the nation's population, is no stranger to clean energy. Waste Management pioneered landfill gas technology 20 years ago and recently cranked up renewable energy generation power plants McMinnville, Ore. and Arlington, Wash.

"These projects show Waste Management's increasing focus on green technologies that extract value from waste," said Paul Burns, a company official in Pacific Northwest, in a statement. It's efficient.

Analysts often advise clients to institute efficiency measures first. Then, they say, there's the option of adding renewable energy.

But I'll wait for the advice from the folks of Old Crow, via One Change. Last I checked on the web cam there was some work going on down from the John Tizya Center. The community is northeast of my old stomping grounds in Fairbanks, Alaska in the Yukon on the Peel River. People who live there are no doubt efficient, and tough.

Photo: Screen grab from the Old Crow, Yukon Territories web cam.

More Companies Discover The Economic Wisdom Of Energy Efficiency

Good investments are hard to find in this economy. Housing prices are falling. Spiking oil prices send shock waves through the stock market. Some experts worry about the safety of municipal bonds. It is tough all over.

But one investment is almost a sure bet. It's not a standard investment, such as a mutual fund. And you don't earn money as much as you save money. But the result is the same: more money in your bank account.

What is this sure-fire investment? It is energy efficiency.

Minimum investment can lead to maximum returns. According to this report, every $1 investment in energy efficiency leads to a savings of $4. The consulting firm of McKinsey & Company reports that energy-efficiency programs could save $600 billion by 2020.

Some companies are reaping large returns from energy-retrofit projects. AT&T saved $44 million in 2009, Dow Chemical is investing $100 million in efficiency measures and News Corp has saved a bundle.

More on those efforts is available here, here and here.

The owners of the Empire State Building and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also are believers . There is a reason why federal energy officials call efficiency the low-hanging fruit of clean energy.

But, like many investments, there are upfront costs and other barriers to entry.

It has been an uphill slog in many ways. Some politicians propose deep cuts to efficiency programs, PACE programs (which would provide a financing mechanism for property owners to finance energy upgrades) were all but curtailed and budgets are in disarray.

But a potential $600 billion in savings awaits. And a strong energy-efficiency program could have a significant impact in places such as the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. In Fresno, where I live, my summertime power bill can exceed $500, and is my second-largest expense behind my mortgage.

Incomes here are low. The unemployment rate exceeds Appalachia figures. We have some of
worst concentrated poverty in the nation. Lower power bills would enrich residents, provide jobs and potentially stimulate the economy.

Photo of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by earthfirst.com