Energy and sustainability in Chicago

In September, Chicago became the ninth American city in recent years to pass energy use benchmarking legislation. The new ordinance holds the potential to dramatically reshape the city’s building stock. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), national benchmarking efforts tracked through its Portfolio Manager program have averaged 2.4% of annual energy savings per year. Even this relatively small reduction has considerable implications for both carbon and cash: using 2.4% less energy saves the typical 500,000 ft2 office building a cumulative energy cost of $120,000 over a three-year period, said the EPA. As benchmarking increases in scope and scale, the environmental and operational benefits will grow.

I spoke to Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, Karen Weigert, to learn more about the city’s energy benchmarking ordinance and its relationship to broader sustainability initiatives.

Karen Weigert

Tell us about the energy benchmarking ordinance and what it means for the city.

Chicago is a fabulous city. Sustainability is embedded in the history of the city — the motto the founders of Chicago chose was “City in a Garden.”

The mayor wants Chicago to be the top of the list of livable, competitive, and sustainable cities. There are a variety of efforts that we’re working on to make sure that we’re heading down that path, under a framework called Sustainable Chicago 2015 that was released in the fall of 2012.

Sustainability is embedded in the history of the city — the motto the founders of Chicago chose was “City in a Garden”

There are seven key themes in the plan. Economics and job creation is first. Energy efficiency is the second. Transportation options are third; fourth is water and wastewater. The fifth is parks, open space, and healthy food. The sixth is waste and recycling. And then the seventh is climate change.

When we look at the opportunities for creating jobs, saving money, reducing environmental impact, or simply creating more enjoyable environments, a lot of it comes down to what we do with our buildings. We know that about 70% of Chicago’s carbon emissions are coming from buildings. We also know that we’re all spending about $3b a year to heat, cool, and operate our buildings: residences, government, and private organizations.

Downtown Chicago

So it’s a huge economic and environmental opportunity. We believe that information unlocks markets. When you have an opportunity like energy efficiency, we believe that data can really help facilitate an acceleration of work.

The policy that we’re talking about today is the energy benchmarking and transparency ordinance. It was passed by city council a few months ago. It focuses on the 3,500 largest non-industrial buildings in Chicago, those that are 50,000ft2 or greater: municipal, residential, commercial buildings. The ordinance will require benchmarking, data verification, and ultimately disclosure of efficiency for those buildings.

Now, it’s interesting. The 3,500 buildings represent less than one percent of all the buildings in Chicago, but they use about 20% of the energy that gets used by all buildings in Chicago. So this certainly seems like a real win–win opportunity to reduce environmental impact while also reducing costs for many buildings throughout the city.

What submission requirements will the energy benchmarking ordinance have? Will any energy audits be required?

The ordinance requires benchmarking using Portfolio Manager, a tool run by the EPA nationally. The data does need to be verified by a trained individual to confirm the data the first year and then every third year after that. This is to ensure that the data entered into the portfolio is correct and the market is responding to accurate information.

The ordinance does not require capital improvements to be made to the building. It also does not require investment-grade audits. We think that the benchmarking and the data will lead to a great deal of action, but the ordinance doesn’t require it.

How will information be presented to the public once it’s collected?

The ordinance requires the city to do a report on energy efficiency. The compliance dates are staggered. The first is in June of 2014. That’s for the largest commercial buildings, those that are 250,000ft2 or greater. In 2015 the rest of the covered commercial buildings, 50,000ft2 or greater, will comply. In 2015, the residential buildings 250,000ft2 or greater are also scheduled to comply, and in 2016 residential buildings that are 50,000ft2 or greater would comply. So the program will have a multi-year roll out.

Each year the city will do a report on energy efficiency, on energy trends, and what we’re seeing by different building sizes, types, etc., so that all of us can have a better idea of performance. Data on specific buildings will be released in the second year after compliance. So the first year’s data for each building won’t be shared, and that creates more of an opportunity for building to change their scores if they want to.

Now, one thing that’s been quite interesting is that several other cities that have passed ordinances similar to this over the last few years. And in looking at some of the data coming out of New York, for example, their older commercial buildings actually are more efficient than their younger commercial buildings. Information like that will help in breaking down the barriers for people thinking that older buildings can’t be efficient.

What other exciting things are going on with sustainability and energy in the city?

It’s a pretty busy time in the city, so I’ll just give you a couple of examples. One of them relates to energy — not energy used in buildings, but energy used in transportation, which ties back to the Sustainable Chicago 2015 plan. This summer, the city launched Divvy, our bike-share program. It’s been up for just a couple of months. We now have a couple of thousand bikes in the city at Divvy stations.

Divvy station

The bikes are everywhere!

They’re everywhere. With the deployment of others this fall we’ll have gone from zero to 3,000 bikes and 300 stations. And the stations are solar-powered.

This is actually the first new transportation system in 50 years in the city of Chicago, and we’ve already hit a million miles. Users can purchase a one-day pass or an annual pass. It’s performing incredibly well; it’s been adopted at a rate that I think is really extraordinary. So Divvy is a great example of sustainability in a very, very practical sense.


I’ll give you a different example. This is something that we were able to announce just recently, more on the water side. The mayor announced that we’re creating a dedicated $50m fund which we’ll spend over the next five years on green stormwater infrastructure dealing with water permeability, water capture: finding more ways to reduce stress on our stormwater system, reduce basement flooding, reduce combined sewage overflow. That’s a way of thinking about infrastructure that will have multiple benefits: a little more green space, more habitat, capturing stormwater in a more scaled way. It will involve building permeability into road resurfacing projects, right-of-way projects, for example.

This is actually the first new transportation system in 50 years in the city of Chicago

Are there any updates with waste and recycling?

We’re in the midst of a huge roll-out of our recycling program. By the end of the year the full city will be covered by recycling. That was something that was not the case when the mayor came in. He and the team have really worked to reduce the cost structure overall so that we can now offer recycling and blue carts citywide.

Chicago green roof

What about climate change?

The largest driver in terms of carbon emissions is energy use by buildings, which is where we started our conversation. But then it also speaks to ensuring that the city is prepared for some of the changes in the climate. And, interestingly, the changes that we’re likely to see in the city are things like high-heat days, so things like green roofs which capture stormwater also help from that perspective. We’ll also see more high-intensity storm events, so capturing stormwater will be even more critical. Chicago is a great city today, and we want to ensure that it is a great city in the years to come.

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