Seattle, a major coal port back in the 1880s, is making coal its business again by working toward carbon-neutrality and waving the red flag to stop more coal trains from crossing Washington state to local ports. Mayor Mike McGinn recently testified before Congress about the benefits of keeping coal where it came from: in the ground.
An interesting and important ally in the fight over coal, nationally if not internationally, is historic preservation. Making the rounds on Puget Sound in late June was David Brown, chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. His visit was on the heels of a new report from the Trust's Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab. The Green Lab is deeply involved in exploring ways to retrofit commercial buildings to be more energy efficient, and not just historic buildings. The environmental benefits of preservation were part of Brown's overall message.
Former National Trust President Richard Moe speaks at the Seattle launch of the Preservation Green Lab. Photo: PreservationNation
Though Brown didn't address coal specifically, the link is unmistakable. The Green Lab study, done in partnership with the New Buildings Institute, concluded that nearly half of the energy consumed by commercial buildings in this country is devoured by small buildings (think restaurants, grocery stores, strip malls, Main Street shops, etc.). Ninety-five percent of all commercial buildings are less than 50,000 square feet. The potential savings by making smaller structures 27 to 59 percent more energy efficient — retrofitting them to operate using less energy — is estimated to represent a potential energy savings of $30 billion per year, or 1.07 quadrillion Btu annually.
How big an impact is one quadrillion Btu? Mark Huppert, director of the Green Lab, says that represents more than 40 percent of America's coal-fired power plants, or an output equivalent to over 500 of the dirtiest ones. In other words, investment in fixing up the existing building stock could help keep a lot of coal in the ground. Even energy companies are changing their perspective. Green Lab quotes James E. Rogers, CEO of the Midwest's Duke Energy, saying last year: "I believe the cleanest power plant that I will build in the future is the one that I don't build."
A key experiment is to make it easier for building owners, developers, investors and tenants to make such changes. The Green Lab is engaged in making this happen using Seattle as a kind of laboratory. For example, they've been working to revamp the city's energy code so that developers have the option to switch to an outcome-based code that avoids many of the prescribed and often expensive upgrades that are required when adapting and updating existing structures.
What that means is that instead of having to remove old boilers or update air conditioning in an older building, a building owner might have the option to restore windows that open, install energy-efficient glass and shades or use other energy-saving technologies rather than being forced to modernize in energy inefficient ways. The Green Lab has several adaptive re-use experiments under way, including Vulcan's Supply Laundry Building in the Cascade area of South Lake Union, and an Anhalt apartment conversion on Capitol Hill. The city council is expected to look at some of these proposed code options later this summer.
Key to outcome-based codes is being able to monitor a buildings' "before" and "after" energy use to make sure the promised savings actually materialize. To that end, the Green Lab has been pushing for new energy metering technologies that can measure the green performance of buildings, new or old. A Portland company, EnergyRM, has developed a metering software system to do just that. It is being installed as an experiment in the new Bullitt Foundation headquarters on Capitol Hill.
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