Fighting Climate Change, One Gorgeous Building at a Time: Chicago's Commercial Building Initiative

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Today Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced plans to tackle one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases in Chicago (or any city), and a key part of the City’s economy at the same time– the energy we use in commercial buildings.  With the Mayor’s leadership, fourteen of the biggest and most recognizable downtown buildings have signed up to be leaders in creating a leaner, cleaner and more sustainable and affordable city, by curbing their energy use by at least 20% over the next 5 years.

This initiative is smart business for Chicago. It cuts one of the biggest expenses for most property owners by using less energy. And it eliminates vast amounts of carbon pollution by cutting down overall energy use---that’s less coal and natural gas burned with all the associated impacts the quality of our air.  It also makes our buildings more resilient, physically and economically, while boosting the local retrofit industry and jobs for building trades. This sets up a robust, growing source of new jobs here in Chicago that cannot be outsourced. 

It is also absolutely critical if we are to address the drivers of climate change in our city.  Commercial building operations are the source of 40% of our carbon pollution nationally. The electricity and natural gas we use to light, heat and power the buildings results in the emission of about 13.7 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually.  The Chicago Climate Action Plan set a goal of lowering commercial building energy use to cut the associated emission by 1.3 million metric tons by 2020.  In order to achieve this goal, the plan called for retrofitting half of the commercial buildings in the city --9000 buildings.

It has taken a lot of steady work to get this initiative ready for prime time. I think Mayor Emanuel and the City’s Sustainability Director. Karen Weigert, have gotten it right, and today’s announcement kicks things off fast.

The Mayor’s new Commercial Building Initiative brings together the necessary players and tools: building owners and managers, technical experts, policy entrepreneurs, access to financing and peer-to-peer consultation opportunities to create case studies and models that can be followed by other building owners and operators.   The initiative’s focus on large structures that are over 200,000 square feet will help to secure savings from the buildings with the greatest potential for energy use reduction. Big impacts, fast.  It is a good way to start; and to ensure that others follow.  The fourteen leadership buildings will work with the city, the technical advisors, the utilities and each other to identify and address the many physical, financial, and policy barriers to energy efficiency. 

NRDC was asked to help the City get this groundbreaking project off the ground and will help keep it moving. We are bringing in experts and innovators from our staff in Chicago and other offices with experience on similar aggressive retrofit projects and policies around the country, most notably in New York City. Our in-house experts will be working with a Chicago-based team of consultants including Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure Group and Sieben Energy Associates.

It is particularly exciting for us at NRDC that our Chairman, Dan Tishman, has committed to the Building Challenge by making the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers one of the first buildings to participate in this exciting program.   The size and significance of the Sheraton will send a great message to the business community in Chicago as the Building Challenge helps this great city meet the economic and environmental needs of this century.

Part of what makes this initiative possible is the statewide energy efficiency portfolio standard, passed in 2007 by the Illinois General Assembly.  This policy requires ComEd, People’s Gas and other utilities to invest in energy efficiency to lower the amount of more expensive and dirtier energy we need to power our homes and businesses.  ComEd’s commercial building programs will be an important driver in the success of the Chicago Commercial Buildings Initiative.

The buildings that committed to the Mayor’s challenge will form the cornerstone of the commercial building retrofit revolution in Chicago include:

  • 224 South Michigan Avenue (Santa Fe Building), 224 South Michigan Avenue
  • 333 North Michigan Avenue, 333 North Michigan Avenue
  • 515 North State Street, 515 North State Street
  • The AT&T Building, 225 West Randolph Street
  • CNA Headquarters, 333 South Wabash Avenue
  • Fifth Third Center, 222 South Riverside Plaza
  • Franklin Center, 227 West Monroe Street & 222 West Adams Street
  • Hyatt Center, 71 South Wacker Drive
  • InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile, 505 North Michigan Avenue
  • The Marquette Building, 140 South Dearborn Street
  • NBC Tower, 454 North Columbus Drive
  • One Financial Place, 440 South LaSalle Street
  • Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, 301 East North Water Street
  • The Wrigley Building, 400-410 North Michigan Avenue

These are some of the most iconic buildings in our town’s skyline---frankly, the most beautiful skyline in the nation. It is exciting to think, that soon that view will not just highlight architecture, but also cutting-edge engineering, innovative energy practices, and investments that will improve Chicago’s economy and environment. This effort will help stop climate change, one gorgeous building at a time.


Sheraton Fireworks image by Ian Freimuth via Flickr