Old Buildings, New Tricks

Green skylines aren't just about new energy-efficient buildings. NRDC's City Energy Project aims to fix our old energy-suckers.

Old and new building facades in Soho, Manhattan, New York City

Credit: Busà Photography/Getty Images

Warning: The building you are about to enter wastes energy and contributes to climate change.

That isn’t a label you’re likely to see on your office or high-rise apartment, but it might very well be true. The giant energy-sucking buildings that dominate city skylines are often huge environmental offenders. In fact, buildings are the largest users of energy in the United States, accounting for roughly 40 percent of total energy consumption—as much as 75 percent in cities. And much of it is wasted.

Enter the City Energy Project, a joint initiative of NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation that is gradually increasing awareness around the energy efficiency (or inefficiency) of the “built environment”—buildings erected back when we knew a lot less about how to save energy and had fewer technologies with which to do so.

The cost of operating these older high-rise buildings is staggering, yet we often know next to nothing about their energy performance and expense—not even when they're up for sale or rent. Because the majority of these structures will still be used for the next 30 to 50 years, filling that information void could significantly decrease a city's carbon footprint while increasing its bottom line.

As part of the project, urban communities—including citizen groups, local leaders, activist organizations, and residents—work with city officials to develop programs and policies tailored to their specific city's energy-efficiency needs. "The communities themselves have committed to taking this on," says Melissa Wright, director of the City Energy Project. "They see it as a major step in the direction of climate action. We partner with local groups on the ground and provide assistance and support."

Interestingly, some of the areas that have concentrated on environmental issues the least are leading the charge. Atlanta, for example, was the first city in the Southeast to pass a law designed to reduce energy use in commercial buildings by monitoring efficiency and maintenance. Beginning in September 2016, the data for buildings with an Energy Star score of over 50 will be publicly shared every year. The city expects that kind of encouragement will reap multiple benefits by the year 2030, among them a 20 percent reduction in commercial energy consumption, about 50 percent less local carbon pollution, and thousands of new jobs.

For other places, the project is one way to curb air pollution and increase quality of life. The mayor of Salt Lake City—often at the top of the list of U.S. cities with the dirtiest air—recently issued an executive order addressing energy efficiency in city-owned structures, and began recognizing building owners who meet and exceed air quality and energy-saving targets.

As more and more urban areas sign on, the web of efficiency expands, furthering a national push toward reducing energy waste—and, in the process, cutting down on the burning of fossil fuels, cleaning up the air we breathe, and making cities more resilient to climate-related crises.

City officials see energy efficiency as part of a major economic and political boon that makes their cities more competitive. Residents, meanwhile, are armed with knowledge—and might even benefit from lower rents or maintenance fees—the next time they sign a lease for space in a big, older building. "In the same way you know the fuel efficiency of the car you buy and the calorie counts for the foods you eat," Wright says, "we need to know how a building performs."

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