The Energy Efficient Buildings Hub, a public-private organization whose largest funder is the U.S. Department of Energy, is leading an ambitious charge to reduce energy consumption in Philadelphia’s commercial buildings. The hope is the model can be replicated in other cities across the US.
Because of the Hub’s efforts to “start moving the needle” on discussion of energy retrofits, the City of Philadelphia is likely to have a successful response to its new law requiring energy disclosure for large buildings, predicted Marla Thalheimer, Director of Sustainability at Liberty Property Trust, a commercial real estate firm and Hub partner.
The Hub attracted $122 million in renewable funding from the DOE after winning a national competition for energy research and development in commercial buildings. Its location at the Philadelphia Navy Yard offers access to a test bed of some 270 buildings, some dating to the early 19th century, and some of which have already become models of energy retrofitting.
Outside the Navy Yard’s South Philadelphia campus, the city is also seen as a fertile testing ground for energy-efficiency building techniques because of its old and energy-inefficient building stock.
The Challenge of Winning Over a ‘Conservative Industry’
In trying to meet the DOE’s national goal for building energy use – a target Hub Deputy Director Laurie Actman acknowledged as “very ambitious” – the Hub has a tough challenge in educating both building owners and the construction industry that will potentially overhaul HVAC systems, improve insulation, or install energy-saving windows.
“A lot of people don’t know the right questions to ask,” she said. “It’s hard to create the demand if the owners don’t know what they should be demanding.”
Other challenges include the fact that many real-estate management companies don’t have a single person who’s responsible for energy management, and that energy bills are typically the concern of tenants, not building managers.
The construction industry, too, can be a tough nut to crack because it wants energy solutions that are tried and tested, Actman said. “It’s a conservative industry,” she said.
Still, recent successes include the passage of city legislation making Philadelphia the latest U.S. city to require all commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet to declare their energy and water usage, starting in June 2013.
It’s hard to create the demand if the owners don’t know what they should be demanding.” – Actman
Actman also counts as milestones a partnership with PECO, the southeastern Pennsylvania electric utility – in which it encourages building managers to provide better access to utility bills – and regular meetings with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and Philadelphia’s city government.
Among the Navy Yard’s assets is an unregulated micro-grid which is being readied by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation to supply companies employing an expected 16,000 workers, about twice the current number, by 2022.
The discrete nature of the grid allows managers to take energy-saving measures in a controlled environment, said Rudolph Terry, director of the Navy Yard Smart Grid.
“We can construct tariffs, a variable demand base, and anything else that we think is going to incent customers to reduce demand,” he said.