Chicago's Merchandise Mart: The green building of the future?

I’m past due for a follow up to our coverage of the Midwest Energy Solutions conference last week.

As correspondent Brian Rogal wrote, one of the big issues facing energy advocates is how to encourage efficiency programs that have a deeper impact. An hourly pricing program by Ameren Illinois, for instance, yielded a net electricity use reduction of less than 2 percent.

Can we do better than that?

Grist’s David Roberts, who moderated a panel at the conference, later pointed out that those single-digit savings, and the “primitive” technology that brings them about, are just the beginning:

What if you combined real-time pricing with OPower’s brand of contextualized, insightful feedback on use? What if you combined both of those with a community-based marketing plan that used local leaders to communicate the benefits of the program? What if you standardized all that — the set-up, the administration, the evaluation — and spread it to more utilities, with a common database of best practices that’s continually updated? What if all that were combined with the rollout of smart-grid technology like net-connected appliances, home energy-management software, and electric vehicles, so that customers had more tools with which to respond to price signals?

In the aggregate, Roberts predicts, power-management programs will reap savings of 10-15 percent within a few years.

And now let’s look at it from the other direction. In an interview with Rogal, Merrian Fuller, a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, laid out the various barriers to getting homeowners to make energy efficiency upgrades to their homes. Perhaps the most significant is that for most people, it’s hard to justify spending thousands of dollars to save maybe a hundred bucks a year off the utility bill.

One way to address that, Fuller says, is to tie in energy savings with other benefits to homeowners. This certainly held true for me during my own window-shopping fiasco last summer. Without exception, the window salesmen told me that people liked the idea of saving energy, but they tended to be motivated more strongly by the fact that they hated their old windows and couldn’t wait to replace them. Oh, and there’s the federal tax break.

A Chicago Tribune story yesterday on efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the city’s downtown core highlights the importance of retrofits. Most of the city’s structures – its renowned architectural heritage – are old and inefficient. New, green construction is nice, but the only way to achieve meaningful energy savings is to improve existing buildings.

The Merchandise Mart, the Tribune points out, is an example of how that can be done. Through a variety of steps, the building – one of the world’s largest – cut its energy use by 21 percent from 2006-2010.

Which means the big lesson in all of this should be a familiar one. To achieve significant energy savings, there is no single silver-bullet solution. Each percentage point adds up to something bigger.

Ken is the director of the Vxartnews at Fresh Energy, and has led the project from its inception as Midwest Energy News in 2009. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he held a variety of editing, production, and leadership roles, and played a key role in the newspaper's transition to digital-first publishing. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon.