Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / Vxartnews

A building retrofit program in Chicago has expanded from a dozen downtown buildings to 75 across the city. Can it continue scaling up enough to help the city reach its ambitious greenhouse gas goals?

Chicago leaders have committed to reducing the city’s emissions 80 percent by 2050.

A towering challenge stands in the way of that goal: buildings.

More than 70 percent of Chicago’s emissions come from building energy use. It’s a sector many cities have found more daunting to address than their fleets or transit systems. Improving building efficiency requires engagement and coordination with building owners and private contractors and often lacks one-size-fits-all solutions.

“That’s the game,” Chris Wheat, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer said.

Chicago hasn’t gone the way of New York City, which last year mandated building energy efficiency measures. Instead, Chicago has focused on a voluntary approach with rebates and awards for participants in a commercial building program called Retrofit Chicago.

Started in 2012, Retrofit Chicago has racked up some early successes. It began with a little more than a dozen buildings, mostly in the Loop, committing to reducing energy use by 20 percent but has since expanded to 75 buildings covering more than 50 million square feet.

City officials estimate the program has reduced emissions by 70,000 metric tons and saved 90 million kW-hours per year, the equivalent of almost 8,000 homes.

Trinity United Church of Christ, located on the South Side, reduced its energy use a by 28 percent between 2014 and 2016. The church, which has about 10,000 worshippers, spent $5.2 million on efficiency upgrades, including replacing old fluorescent lights with LEDs and installing new mechanical equipment and energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. It also installed a white roof to reflect sunlight and a rooftop garden to absorb carbon.

Wilfred Bentley, Trinity’s executive director of operations, said the church is saving cash with the upgrades, but the goal was never to reduce its bills. Rather, Trinity leaders hope to be a catalyst for change within the community.

“We weren't just going to do major repairs in the building,” Bentley said. “We wanted to do it in a manner that was in keeping with our theology of being good stewards of the resources that God has provided.”

Chicago named Trinity’s renovation the most innovative energy project of 2017 for meeting efficiency goals and for leadership within the community — 80 percent of the work was contracted to local businesses.

On the North Side, the Salvation Army division headquarters’ power bill was $10,000 a month. Tom Nylen, facilities manager, said investing $50,000 over three years into efficiency upgrades shaved consumption by 20 percent.

The upgrades have been recouped with savings, which are especially impressive considering the building — converted from an old hospital — is nearly a century old.

“I’m putting a poster up in my office that says: ‘I’m making the army money by saving it,’” Nylen said.

The Salvation Army upgraded its heating and cooling system, replaced old fluorescent tube light bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs, added a BPU energy management system, renovated the kitchen with new equipment — including a walk-in cooler and refrigerators — and installed motion-activated sensor lights throughout the building.

“This is my life,” Nylen said. “This is the first opportunity I have had where people really care about this stuff. For me, you don’t want to spend too much money when you have people on the street that need clothes and shelter.”

The biggest energy saver? The new automated heating and cooling system that’s controlled by the building supervisor, James Slaughter, on his office computer. Slaughter said the most important move made by the Salvation Army was moving from pneumatic temperature control to digital. “Monitoring is more important than anything else,” he said.

Salvation Army staff and visitors gather in the chapel for service on Tuesdays. Nylen and Slaughter programmed the system to warm the room on only these mornings.

“It was a waste of money having it at 70 degrees every day,” Nylen said.

Sustainability officer Wheat said that the energy challenge should benefit businesses.

“A city like Los Angeles or Seattle, most of their emissions are from transportation. We are a dense city, so mostly how we create emissions is through lights and devices,” he said.

The city estimates that $3 billion a year is spent on building energy and that as much as 20 percent of that energy is wasted. The cost to residents and businesses is in the millions, according to city energy benchmarking report from last year. (The city has paired the retrofit program with a zero-to-four-star building efficiency rating system for large buildings downtown.)

City officials say education and awareness is the best way to encourage private businesses to make efficiency upgrades, but they acknowledge that government efforts to provide clear data to building managers about energy use are still in early days.

“We are really trying to use smart data and more consistent data to reduce energy use and make buildings and tenants more comfortable,” Wheat said.

Photos: Inside the Salvation Army's efficiency retrofit

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.