25 Cities That Have Gone Gaga for Green Building

Just nine metropolitan areas in the U.S. at the end of 2009 could boast the presence of more than 100 commercial and industrial buildings earning the Energy Star label for energy efficiency, according to the just-released list of the EPA’s top 25 cities for Energy Star buildings.

The list (included in full below) offers a general sense of which metro areas are really pushing for greener buildings. But the actual rank on the list shouldn’t be taken at face value, because the number of buildings in a city with superior energy efficiency doesn’t directly correlate with reductions in energy consumption. In this case, size matters.

To determine a facility’s energy performance (the first step toward an Energy Star label), the EPA compares the amount of energy used among similar types of facilities on a scale of 1-100. To qualify for the Energy Star label, a commercial building must earn a score of 75 or higher, while industrial facilities have to score in the top 25 percent (the EPA says its rating system accounts for variables such as operating conditions and regional weather data).

For example, New York City ranks as No. 10 on the EPA’s list, with only 90 buildings. But those 90 buildings include 50.4 million square feet of floor space — more than four times the total floor space of the 120 Energy Star labeled buildings in Lakeland, Fla. So Lakeland ranks higher on the list (No. 7), but its greener buildings deliver only $8.3 million in cost savings, and prevent emissions equivalent to those resulting from 6,300 homes electricity use. By comparison, New York Cities’ 90 buildings deliver $88.3 million in cost savings and prevent emissions equivalent to those from 31,000 homes.

Los Angeles, Calif. holds the top spot on the EPA list, with 293 Energy Star labeled buildings, $93.9 million in cost savings and prevention of emissions equivalent to the impact of 34,800 homes. But the 133 buildings in Houston, Tex. prevent emissions equivalent to 53,400 homes (more than any other metro area on the list), while saving only $73.9 million and earning the city slot No. 6 on the list.

That said, spurring competition among cities to boost the efficiency of commercial buildings is certainly comes as a welcome effort. According to Energy Star, the energy used in commercial buildings and manufacturing plants accounts for nearly half of the country’s power consumption and costs more than $200 billion per year — more than any other sector of the economy.

The Energy Star program is widely used to identify top energy-performing buildings, and Matthew Macko, a principal with San Francisco-based Environmental Building Strategies, has told us that part of its appeal stems from the fact that the web-based system is quick. It also helps that the label has a federal agency vouching for it that’s well known outside the building industry (the EPA).

But alternative scoring systems have begun to crop up. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers unveiled a program last year called Building EQ that’s meant to “expand on the type and amount of information the Energy Star program provides,” presenting buildings with a kind of report card of their energy use. A typical commercial building today would get about a C rating under Building EQ, and while an Energy Star-rated building would likely earn a B.

The basic goal of these types of programs is to highlight information about the environmental impact of a building. From there the hope is for the market to provide a premium for structures that are cleaner and more efficient, and in turn, give owners and developers an incentive to seek out the rating with greener designs.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user O b s k u r a

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