Year Three Proves the Green Office Challenge Not so Challenging

By Clarence P. Denning

greenofficePay any attention to green building trends and you’ll hear an oft-cited number: 40%. That’s the share of U.S. energy consumption taken by buildings. The picture is bigger than that, however, and little of it is rosy.

In 1980, buildings accounted for not quite 33%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Back then, the energy-intensive industry sector accounted for more at over 41%. By 2010, those figures had nearly swapped; industry had shrunk to under 31% while buildings now consumed over 41%.

Residential buildings have always accounted for a larger portion than commercial buildings, but the latter have grown much faster over that time period. Residential structures grew from 20.1% of the total U.S. energy portfolio in 1980 to 22.5%. Over those thirty years, commercial buildings grew from 13.5% to 18.6%. The DOE predicts that to jump to 20% by 2035. In a dense, urban area like Chicago, structures account for about 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, with nearly 40% coming from commercial buildings.

Clearly, steps need to be taken to abate this growth. In 2009, the City of Chicago created a program to address commercial energy use, in coordination with Local Governments for Sustainability (known as ICLEI after their former title, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives).

The Green Office Challenge is a friendly competition among office tenants to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The Challenge not only offers an opportunity for Chicago businesses and property managers to gain recognition for their green achievements, they can save energy, save money and gain a competitive advantage in green innovations.

More than 100 property owners and office tenants participated in the first year, including Jones Lang LaSalle, the Merchandise Mart, Transwestern Corporation, Office Depot and Microsoft. Office tenants are evaluated through a “green office scorecard” based on 50 green strategies that are related to five key office-related sectors: waste, energy, transportation, outreach and tenant engagement. Property managers can implement behavioral changes and capital improvements to reach those goals, and all are encouraged to use Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager to track the data.

Nearly 150 property managers and tenant companies located in Chicago’s downtown business district took part in the Green Office Challenge last year. Combined, they saved $17.5 million in energy costs and reduced energy use by 124 million kWh, the equivalent to the energy used by 45,000 homes. These efforts averted the emission of more than 85,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

“Chicago’s efforts in sustainability have created economic opportunity throughout our neighborhoods and dramatically improved the overall quality of life for residents,” said Mayor Emanuel. “The Green Office Challenge is a great example of the private sector working with government to reduce costs and create jobs while protecting the environment.”

Participants worked to set and achieve specific green goals, supported primarily through monthly training events, use of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager and other tools. It is because of these efforts, for example, that participants were able to divert 43% of their waste from landfills.

Round three, which launched in February, is a collaboration between the city and various partners, including non-profit Delta Institute, technology start-up GreenPoint Partners and sponsor Office Depot. This round will run through 2013 and suggests activities that employees and building managers can undertake to green their business practices. The competition has previously been focused on office buildings and tenants in the Loop, but this round will expand to those not just in the central business district but across the city and even the suburbs.

Mayor Emanuel’s environmental action agenda, Sustainable Chicago 2015, sets a target of doubling participation and impact in round three, as part of a larger goal to accelerate the economy through sustainability.

Aside from opening up the program to the full extent of the Chicago area, the key to the future success of this version is competition. “In Chicago, we like to compete and we like to win. And we love to win on sustainability,” said Karen Weigert, the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer, at the February launch party. “We want Chicago to be the most sustainable, competitive, livable city in the world.”

Last summer, ICLEI released the Green Business Challenge App, a customizable web application that now allows any municipality to launch a friendly competition among its business community to save money, energy, water and waste. Based on the success of Chicago’s Green Business Challenge, nearly a dozen cities and counties have also launched similar programs, including Houston, Charleston and Arlington County.

Houston Green Office Challenge participants reduced energy use by 28 million kilowatt hours, water use by 74 million gallons, and diverted 40% of their waste from landfills, in addition to many other achievements like adding bicycle parking, implementing flex time and telecommuting policies. The secret to the Green Business Challenge program’s success is twofold: fun and friendly competition, and media recognition for the businesses’ green achievements.

The web app allows any local government to launch a Green Business Challenge program in weeks, not months, and to administer it with fewer staff and less money. Participants access the app through the local government’s website, and use it to register, take a baseline survey, browse a library of tips and resources, update their achievements, view a scorecard that tracks their progress toward goals, read customized suggestions for ways to increase their score and operate a carbon calculator. Program administrators can use the tool to customize the pr-ogram, view reports on participants’ progress and maintain engagement with mass emails.

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