Can these 10 Cities Make a Dent in the Energy Efficiency Universe?

Jan. 30, 2014
Ten big US cities have joined forces to find $1 billion in annual energy savings and to transform energy efficiency markets. Will they succeed?

Call it a federation for our times. Ten big US cities have joined forces to figure out this energy efficiency thing and show the world how it’s done.

Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City announced their mission Wednesday: to achieve $1 billion annually in energy savings from buildings. The cities plan to share information among themselves and later the world about their successes and failures.

The city leaders hope to solve a classic market failure that frustrates urban energy efficiency efforts. “The buildings and the money are having a hard time connecting,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles at a news conference. Garcetti said that he and his counterparts intend to become the “matchmakers.”

Two groups well-versed in energy efficiency efforts – the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation – are organizing and advising the ‘City Energy Project.’ It is backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Kresge Foundation will fund the effort with $9 million over three years.

The City Energy Project will act in an advisory capacity, helping cities first look for no-cost and low-cost energy savings, such as operational improvements in buildings. Where funding is needed, the project organizers will help cities think through financing strategies with an eye toward attracting private investment.

The project comes at a time when US city mayors are showing strong interest in energy efficiency. Earlier this month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Philips issued results from a survey of 300 mayors showing that cities expect to significantly expand their investment in energy technologies over the next five years, with LED lighting, solar and building retrofits as their top priorities.

Moving markets

The project isn’t after one-size-fits-all solutions. Each city will develop a plan by the end of this year suited to its demographics, building stock, energy profile and other factors. The project hopes to demonstrate how to make energy efficiency work in different kinds of cities, according to NRDC’s Laurie Kerr, City Energy Project director.

The project will place emphasis on performance-based incentives and innovation among the cities – it is not pre-judging what will work, say its organizers.

“We have the skills and technology to make buildings more efficient, but we need a coordinated effort by major cities and the private sector to make it happen,” said Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation. “The City Energy Project will give city leaders and the real estate industry the support they need to make buildings better, improving the lives of millions of city residents.”

Ten big cities synchronizing efforts could bring much-needed scale to the building retrofit market. However, the project isn’t about multi-city aggregations or joint solicitations for contracts. Instead, the project aims to help contractors and subcontractors scale-up by building markets within each city. “It is a lot easier to move as a market than it is to move individually,” Majersik said.

A carbon play

City leaders also hope the project will help them attract green tech jobs and assist in their greenhouse gas reduction efforts.

Buildings are the largest single source of U.S. carbon emissions, representing 40 percent nationwide – more than either the transportation or industrial sectors. That number is even more dramatic at the city level, with more than half of carbon emissions in most U.S. cities coming from buildings – and in some cities as much as 75 percent, according to the project organizers.

The cities hope their efforts will result in greenhouse gas reductions equal to removing 1 million to 1.5 million cars from the road annually, and reducing energy use to the tune of shutting down 3-4 power plants, roughly the amount of electricity used by 700,000 to 1 million American homes annually.

The cities chosen were not necessarily the greenest or most tech savvy in the country. Instead the project organizers considered a city’s drive and potential to achieve significant energy savings. They also sought geographic spread to create representation nationwide.

What are the 10 top US cities for energy efficiency? See a list here by the American Council for an Energy Economy. (Not to be confused with the 10 cities participating in City Energy Project)

“With U.S. buildings consuming more primary energy than countries like Russia and India, the scale of the opportunity to optimize building energy performance is significant,” said John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer, UTC Building & Industrial Systems. “Cities collaborating and implementing creative, practical energy efficiency polices can go a long way to reducing America’s $450 billion annual energy bill and carbon emissions.”

Can this work? What avenues should city leaders pursue to succeed in “matchmaking” buildings with money for energy efficiency? Please post your thoughts here or join the discussion on our LinkedIn group.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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