Empire State Building: New energy role model

The iconic skyscraper is undertaking $20 million in conservation measures. Promoters hope to duplicate the effort worldwide.

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By Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney.com staff writer

The Empire State Building is getting $20 million in efficiency updates that's expected to cut energy use by 39%.
President Bill Clinton and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg present their vision for an energy efficient Empire State Building.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Empire State Building kicked off a major energy-saving retrofit Monday, and promoters hope one of the world's most iconic skyscrapers can become an efficiency model for buildings worldwide.

From the cloud-shrouded observation deck on the building's 80th floor, former President Bill Clinton, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others detailed $20 million in cutting-edge conservation measures they hope will cut energy use by 38% for the 1930's-era behemoth.

They stressed the retrofits weren't green altruism or part of a government program. Instead, they say they're being done simply to save the building's owners a lot of money.

"I can't tell you how important this day is," said Clinton, who founded the Clinton Climate Initiative where the retrofit plan was hatched. "In order for the world to meet [the greenhouse gas reductions] most scientists say we should, we have to prove it's good economics."

The retrofits are expected to save building owners $4.4 million in annual energy costs. They are part of an overall $500-plus million rehab plan for the building, which is estimated by its owners to be worth $2.2 billion.

Buildings, including offices and homes, use some 40% of all energy consumed worldwide, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. The typical house produces twice as much carbon dioxide as the typical car.

The conservation measures at the Empire State building include:

  • Filling the existing windows with an energy saving gas and adding an additional plastic pane.
  • Upgrading the building's cooling system.
  • Using computerized "smart" energy management technology that can adjust temperatures floor by floor.
  • Provide tenants with detailed energy use in their space.
  • Shut off lights in unused areas.

Much of the interior lighting is also being replaced with more efficient fluorescent bulbs. The famous spire lights, which change color throughout the year in accordance with different holidays and events, are not getting an upgrade. But engineers on the project said the spire may get ultra-efficient LED lighting when the price for that technology drops enough, perhaps by 2013.

Global reach

The retrofit is being hailed as a breakthrough in energy conservation. It uses a new computer model developed by the Department of Energy to look at all aspects of the building's energy use and run a cost benefit analysis to see what changes would provide the biggest payoff.

In addition to its fame - it was the world's tallest building for over 40 years - it's also an important testing ground because of its age. The building is made of granite and was completed in 1931.

"The Empire State Building was the perfect opportunity," said Ian Campbell, an executive at Johnson Controls, the company performing the retrofit. "You can teach an old building new tricks."

Campbell said once completed, the makeover should put the building among the top 10% of energy efficient buildings worldwide.

Campbell and others working on the project hope to take the skills and lessons learned at this retrofit and promote it in other similar projects worldwide.

"This need not be a rare accomplishment at all," said Raymond Quartararo, a director at Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate consultancy that's helping manage the retrofit. "If it can be done at the Empire State Building, it can be done in thousands of buildings around the globe."

A spokesman for CB Richard Ellis, the world's largest commercial real estate company, said they've seen an increase in the number of building owners interested in doing similar retrofits.

"Owners generally recognize the need to take steps in energy efficiency," said the spokesman. "This will accelerate that interest."

There's certainly lots of room for savings.

"Buildings are perhaps the biggest key to the climate issue," said energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins, on hand for the event. "As soon as people realize efficiency is cheaper than new power, opposition [to higher efficiency standards] will melt faster than the glaciers."  To top of page

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