The Empire State is one of the most energy efficient buildings in the world. Can others follow suit?

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To understand the carbon footprint of cities around the world, just look at their skyline.

While industry and transport have long been labeled as the main carbon culprits, some conservationists are trying to raise awareness of another troubling source, especially in dense urban areas – buildings, multi-level structures that fill many cities.

The amount of energy needed to light, cool, heat and ventilate them can make up a large part of a city’s carbon output. According to a UN report, buildings around the world accounted for 37% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.

“In a city like New York, 70% of our carbon emissions come from buildings,” said John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, a New York-based advocacy group that works to make buildings more sustainable.

“We are attacking buildings, we are solving the crisis of the planet,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said at an event Thursday, unveiling a playbook for doing just that.

The Grand Staircase of the Empire State Building. Its ambitious renovation achieved a major milestone last year, reducing its carbon emissions by more than 50%. By 2030, the goal is to be carbon neutral. (Amanda Stevens Photography/Empire State Realty Trust)

The event took place on the 80th floor, overlooking the sea of ​​New York buildings, the very issue that Hochul was talking about. But, more importantly, it was at the Empire State Building, which achieved an ambitious feat: converting a building constructed in 1930 into one of the most energy-efficient in the world.

“If we can get there at the Empire State Building, a historically preserved pre-war icon, we believe we can get there anywhere,” said Anthony Malkin, CEO of Empire State Realty Trust, the company that owns and operates the Empire State Building.

Carbon neutral objective by 2030

After a decade of implementation, the Empire State’s ambitious renovation project achieved a major milestone last year, reducing its carbon emissions by more than 50%. By 2030, the goal is to be carbon neutral, Dana Schneider, director of energy and sustainability at the Empire State Realty Trust, said in a press release.

The company is now publishing Empire Building Playbook: A Homeowner’s Guide to Low-Carbon Renovations, filled with all the lessons from the past 10 years and their plans for the future.

Former US President Bill Clinton, center left, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, center right, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, right, at an event to mark Earth Day with announcements about environmental improvements on the Empire State Building’s infrastructure Thursday at New York. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

“Every piece of this building, we did something to make it perform better,” Schneider said.

From the outside, the Empire State Building can still look like it did in the 1930s when it broke ground for its height and Art Deco design. But, it now works in a way that would probably be unrecognizable to its original builders.

Take the triple-glazed windows, with krypton and argon molecules injected into the air gap, for extra insulation. All 6,514 windows in the building have been modernized. Heat loss during the winter months and heat gain in the summer is a huge problem for older windows that can drain a building’s cooling and heating system.

The Empire State Building’s iconic elevators can be seen here. In 2019, the building completed the largest elevator modernization project in the world. Its 68 elevators are all equipped with regenerative braking systems. (Empire State RealtyTrust)

“We reused 96% of the original glass and frames, and we did that in a window factory we built on the fifth floor. Nothing left the building,” Malkin said.

This project was completed in 2010.

In 2019, the building completed the largest elevator modernization project in the world. Its 68 elevators are all equipped with regenerative braking systems. Elevators not only use less energy to operate, but they also generate energy as they go up and down, to power other systems in the building.

1: A double-glazed window is removed and dismantled. 2: Each pane is washed three times. 3: New spacers are attached to each flap. 4: The insulating film is applied to a window pane through the conveyor. 5: The second pane is applied on top and sealed as a single unit. 6: The unit is baked to tighten the film layer. 7: Inert gases are introduced into the unit. 8: The unit is reassembled in its chassis and reinstalled. (Radio Canada)

In the basement, there is another key renovation, the Central Chiller, the centralized system that cools the air in a building. At first glance, the Empire State Cooling Plant may look like it did in the 1950s, but the software it runs on now will tell you otherwise.

“So we removed all the casings, recycled all the metal, and built new casings for the chillers on site,” said Schneider, who gave CBC News a tour of the building’s critical energy-saving upgrades.

The new system can collect data and be programmed to cool the building’s 300,000 meters of space with optimum efficiency.

“Not enough if we only succeed in the Empire State Building”

“Everything we’ve learned here is given, because it’s not enough if we’re only successful in the Empire State Building,” Schneider said.

That’s the goal of the playbook, co-developed by the New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the agency that helps lead the state’s efforts to reduce gas emissions. greenhouse effect by 85% by 2050.

The playbook available online for anyone to use breaks down dozens of measures the Empire State Building has already used, as well as hundreds of new ideas to support massive building renovations, including power grid upgrades.

“We work with the 10 of the largest real estate companies in New York State, which own more than 700 large buildings,” said Janet Josef, senior executive at NYSERDA.

Josef said this partnership has resulted in a commitment from owners to decarbonize more than 50 million square feet of their existing buildings over the next decade. State leaders hope their push will result in a projected economic impact of US$20 billion and 100,000 jobs if all buildings in New York follow the playbook.

“I say welcome to New York’s energy future and as New York goes, the nation goes, and the world goes,” Hochul said.

In Canada, 100,000 large buildings need renovation

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for a net-zero building code by the end of 2024.

The Canada Green Building Council estimates that approximately 100,000 large buildings need to be retrofitted to help the country reduce its carbon footprint.

“The average Canadian probably doesn’t know that buildings are a massive contributor to carbon emissions in this country,” said Thomas Mueller, CEO of the Canada Green Building Council. “They’re focused on the industry, they’re focused on the cars. The fact is we need action in all three areas.”

Some of these actions are already legislated in New York. In 2019, the city passed a law that will require large buildings to limit their carbon emissions by 2024, the first municipality in the world to pass such a law.

WATCH | Vancouver is reducing the amount of fossil fuels used to heat buildings:

Vancouver’s push for zero-emission energy sources in buildings

The City of Vancouver is joining a North American campaign to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used to heat buildings by making zero-emission energy sources a policy for new low-rise residential buildings. 2:12

Mueller says political will is important, but so is private sector support.

“I want the top 25 commercial real estate owners in Canada to commit to decarbonizing their entire building stock over the next 30 years,” he said.

For the group gathered on the top floor of the Empire State Building a day before Earth Day, the hope is that the playbook will reach far beyond New York and empower advocates around the world, like Mueller .

“You have the playbook, you have no excuses, and you have a story awaiting your actions here today,” Hochul said.

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