How to keep coal where it belongs: in the ground

Start with a full-out effort to make buildings energy efficient. Seattle's Preservation Green Lab, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is exploring new ways to retrofit old - and new - structures.
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New energy efficiency studies focus on energy consumption of commercial buildings

Start with a full-out effort to make buildings energy efficient. Seattle's Preservation Green Lab, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is exploring new ways to retrofit old - and new - structures.

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.

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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.

The so-called DeltaMeter measures energy consumption against a projected baseline of what the Bullitt Center would consume if it had been built according to the conventional energy code. The data includes adjustments made for weather, building occupancy and other dynamic details. Measuring results is critical for several reasons. In an outcome-based system, building owners and occupants have to be held accountable for whether their approach to energy savings is actually working — or not. Metering also creates an opportunity for building investors to generate an income stream based on the savings, one that helps pay for retrofitting costs and offers an ongoing incentive to maintain energy-efficient performance.

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The Bullitt Center's energy consumption monitoring system part of the new sustainability movement. Photo: Flickr user cactusbones

In the case of the new Bullitt Center, the Bullitt Foundation and City Light have signed a 20-year agreement under which EnergyRM's technology will track the building's performance. The Bullitt Center will pay for both the energy it uses and saves. City Light will then pay the Bullitt Foundation for its saved energy much as it would if it were buying it from another utility, plus a small conservation premium. Down the road, such a program could expand beyond simply new "living buildings" like Bullitt. As the Green Lab report outlines, there's huge potential for pre-existing commercial properties to retrofit for sustainability and show tangible results. Buildings are said to be responsible for 75 percent of electricity consumption in the U.S.

Part of the goal of the City Light is to line-up the financial interests of building owners, tenants, investors and utilities so that they're all pulling in the same direction. In Green Lab's phrase, to "measure, motivate, and monetize real energy performance." It provides a way to fund improvements that make structures way more sustainable. The New York Times recently wrote up the Bullitt-City Light deal, quoting Brett Phillips of Unico Partners in Seattle saying, "This is a whole new frontier." In a press release from Mayor McGinn's office announcing the Bullitt-City Light pilot program, foundation president Denis Hayes said that "If adopted nationally, this could be a trillion dollar game changer."

The benefit for historic and older properties is clear. The Green Lab promotes adaptive re-use of existing buildings whether they're technically historic or not. Such adaptation preserves the "embodied energy" of structures and limits wasteful landfill created by demolished buildings that still have useful lives. David Brown says it takes 30 to 50 years for a building to recover the carbon impact costs of demolishing an existing one. Thus, the environmental benefit for simply reusing old buildings is strong, as is the added benefit of restoring or retrofitting them to better levels of energy efficiency. Brown says Seattle is way ahead of other cities in looking at outcome-based energy innovations.

Fixing older structures can also help shape densifying and re-developing urban neighborhoods by making it more economically viable to keep character-defining, non-landmark architecture and by reviving small retail businesses that make walkable neighborhoods tick — lessons applicable in many Seattle neighborhoods, such as Pike-Pine, South Lake Union, SoDo, Ballard and other hot spots. It also retains building stock that is more affordable and often better scaled to small businesses.

"Old and new together," said the Trust's Brown at an Urban Land Institute breakfast at Seattle's restored Arctic Club hotel, "can lead us down the pathway to prosperity." And perhaps help keep coal in its place.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.