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St. Louis joins national initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings

An energy efficient light bulb.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Nearly 80 percent of St. Louis' greenhouse gas emissions comes from buildings, according to 2015 data from the city's sustainability office. A new partnership with a national energy efficiency initiative could help St. Louis address the impacts its buildings have on the environment. 

The city recently joined the City Energy Project, a joint initiative by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, which provides funding and resources to cities to create programs that improve energy efficiency in buildings. St. Louis expects to receive over $500,000 in assistance from the project. 

"In tackling our greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings, a program that focuses on existing buildings is going to help us achieve some of our climate protection goals and objectives," said Catherine Werner, the city's sustainability director.

The city offers commercial buildings owners the opportunity to participate in its Set the PACE program, which finances energy efficiency, water efficiency and renewable energy projects for buildings. The city recently expanded Set the PACE to include residential buildings.  

Werner said the partnership will lead to creating more programs that encourage building owners to address their energy usage. 

"If you're a business owner and if you take advantage of some of these programs, then your utility costs are going to go down," she said. "Your efficiency is going to improve and you're going to save money." 

Werner's office is drafting an energy benchmarking ordinance that would require building owners to track their energy use. The city will only qualify for funding and resources from the City Energy Project if it passes the ordinance, which she said could happen this winter.

She's also working with stakeholders and organizations to come up with a funding match for the project.  

"This is a fantastic opportunity for us to move the needle on the dial and make a difference in our greenhouse gas emissions and energy efficiency," Werner said. "It's going to take the support and participation of many, many, many people in the community to make this successful."

'Benchmarking jam'

But what exactly is benchmarking?

“Tracking your building energy use and comparing that to some sort of baseline, and that can be measuring against your past performance – your past energy use, or it can compare to other similar buildings,” said Emily Andrews, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council-Missouri Gateway Chapter.

Andrews said her organization is working with St. Louis city on its ordinance and efforts to encourage benchmarking by educating and engaging potential stakeholders. In fact, the organization has been working since 2014 with the St. Louis Regional Chamber and the organization Missouri Interfaith Power and Light to teach building owners about the benefits of this nationally recognized “best practice.”

It has worked with all types of building owners: from congregations to grocery stores, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Cardinals.


A worker installs fiberglass insulation.
Credit Dennis Schroeder, National Renewable Energy Lab
Installing fiberglass insulation could help cut energy loss.

Andrews said the first step is for building owners to collect a year’s worth of energy use data to set that baseline. They will then enter that information into a tool called the EnergyStar Portfolio Manager that provides “target-setting support.” EnergyStar gives buildings like basic office buildings and schools a 1-to-100 score comparing their energy usage to similar buildings using the tracking tool across the country.

“So 50 is average and the higher your score, the better your performance,” she said. “That’s one way to provide some comparison. The nice thing is once you enter data for your building, moving forward if you are doing this on an annual basis, then you can kind of compare to your own performance and own baseline performance as well.”

Andrews’ group will host its third “Benchmarking Jam” from 4 to 6 p.m. Nov. 30 at the Botanical Garden’s Commerce Bank Center for Science Education. Volunteers, usually engineers, architects and others in the building industry, will help building owners and managers to gather a year’s worth of data and enter it in the EnergyStar program, as well as answer questions.

“A lot of people have heard the phrase ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure,’ or ‘What you don’t measure won’t change,’” she said. “Basically we’re just encouraging people to pay attention to their building energy performance and building energy use, really just paying attention to what’s going on in the building and looking for opportunities for improvement.”

Benchmarking isn’t just good for the environment, but also for building owners’ bottom line, Andrews said, by saving energy costs. That was the experience of Forum Studio/Clayco, which began benchmarking eight years ago.

But Forum Studio senior associate Nick Bristow said the company could not have saved costs and energy had it not started tracking its usage.

“We had no idea. We thought we’d be a lot better when we started,” he said. “We loaded in our utility information ... hoping to get a good score. We were a little bit dismayed our score ended up being 22. We were in the bottom 25 percent.”

Since then, the company has made changes that resulted in a six percent decrease in energy usage each year “just through the benchmarking.” Now the company has a score of 74 and hopes next month to top 75 and become EnergyStar-certified.

Bristow emphasized that his company didn’t make any major changes, other than replacing its roof in those years. It first made sure all of its equipment was working properly, then looked into new techniques or energy-saving strategies. For example, he said the company revamped its “morning warm-up program” by changing how it began heating up the building each day.

Another small change was to change a system used for lowering the building’s temperature called “free cooling.”

“It was standard not too long ago to economize or start free cooling when the temperature was 55 degrees outside, so instead of recirculating warm air and cooling it down with air conditioners, you bring bring in outside air that’s cooler,” he said. “So what we did was we bumped that up from 55 to 65 so we can do free cooling more often throughout the year.”

Bristow said benchmarking has been a “cheap and easy way” to improve its energy usage.

“It’s worth it just to see where you stand,” he said. “Without that, you’re just guessing or just blind.”

Andrews said she hopes other building owners will follow Forum Studio’s example. The more buildings that participate, the more the St. Louis region might meet greenhouse gas reduction goals. For instance, the city wants to eliminate 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

“It’s hard to control what people are doing in their own homes and buildings, so we’re helping to raise awareness about what people can do to contribute to both the city’s and the region’s environmental health,” she said. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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