In Missouri, resource hubs aim to help building owners improve efficiency

By Karen Uhlenhuth, Energy News Network

Nonprofit groups have established resource centers in St. Louis and the Kansas City metro to help building owners upgrade properties as advocates press cities to adopt more stringent energy efficiency standards.

Energy efficiency advocates in Missouri’s two largest cities have launched new efforts to help building owners comply with the more demanding building efficiency standards that are gradually taking hold across the country.

In St. Louis, where the City Council passed a building energy performance standard in spring 2020, the local chapter of the Green Building Council won financial support from the Institute for Market Transformation and Ameren, the local utility, and hired an executive director to run a new building energy exchange hub. She began work a few weeks ago.

In the Kansas City region, although no community has adopted the building performance standards, an energy exchange executive director began working in April. After the group Climate Action KC drafted a regional climate plan, “people turned around and said, ‘How are we going to implement this?’” said Ashley Sadowski, the new executive director. Having learned that buildings account for 63% of the region’s carbon emissions, the climate group decided to pursue a building hub.

Building hubs, comprised usually of one or a few staff members working under the auspices of an energy or broader environmental not-for-profit, typically are tasked with advancing building efficiency by connecting building owners and managers with contractors, education and financing avenues.

Although hubs have been around for several years, the Institute for Market Transformation has given them a new spin. As the changing climate has gained traction and urgency, the institute has been pressing cities to adopt more stringent building standards. To help owners meet those standards, it has provided guidance and funds from the Leon Lowenstein Foundation to foster the creation of building hubs.

New York City adopted a building performance standard in 2009 and has operated an energy exchange since 2010. A hub likely will be coming to Washington, D.C., which adopted building performance standards in 2018. The standards also have been approved by the state of Washington, the city of Chula Vista in California and, just a few weeks ago, Boston.

“With the increase in building performance standards that we expect to see across the nation, we think resource hubs pair well,” said Margaret Lo, the institute’s director of business engagement. New York’s hub, the only one with any history, doesn’t have any data yet on what sort of impact it has had.

The standards require that large structures achieve an efficiency target that is reset every few years. The St. Louis ordinance, for example, requires all buildings of at least 50,000 square feet to achieve an efficiency level by 2025 that is based on three recent years of benchmarking energy use data. Building owners may choose any technology they like. A new threshold will be established in 2026.

And while energy consumption data compiled through benchmarking provides an essential foundation, the new resource hubs working with the Institute for Market Transformation “take it to another level of collaboration,” said the institute’s Lo. “It’s taking the energy data and ratcheting up your performance. Ideally, we’d love it to be net-zero energy.”

The Missouri Gateway Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council has two major goals for its St. Louis building hub, according to the council’s executive director, Emily Andrews.

“The immediate need is to make sure the Building Energy Performance Standard is successful, and that buildings are complying with it,” she said. Secondarily, “we’ll be creating all kinds of great tools and resources that will be available to any building. We’d like to scale the work our city has done through the broader region.”

When building owners and managers are given a deadline, they don’t necessarily know where to begin, she said. “There’s no one place where all this information exists in terms of making buildings more efficient.”

Bits and pieces reside with utilities, city government, state and federal energy and the Green Building Council, she said. Building owners and managers will need to know about utility and government incentives and financing options such as property-assessed clean energy. The building energy exchange will try to make that easily accessible.

Moreover, she envisions providing a checklist of enhancements that will boost energy efficiency with estimates of their return on investment.

In Kansas City, Sadowski said she initially will focus on persuading building owners and managers of the value of reducing energy use in their warehouses, office buildings and apartment complexes, growing the energy efficiency workforce, and establishing a “green bank.”

Unlike in St. Louis, Sadowski will not have the force of local law behind her. She will depend on persuasion and, later, when there are more funds, she envisions providing “concierge” service to help building owners find financing and high-caliber contractors.

She has a grant to provide training to energy efficiency contractors, who she then will connect with building owners ready to do upgrades.

“We will focus on Black and Brown and disadvantaged contractors” who “may not be able to benefit as the market shifts,” she said. Working with training partners, she plans to enhance contractors’ understanding of high-performance buildings.

Sadowski’s vision for a local green bank would provide low-cost loans to building owners. With the help of a local nonprofit, she hopes to collect money from federal and local governments, specifically tax funds aimed at climate mitigation and affordable housing, as well as foundations.

Even with building hubs in place, Andrews of the St. Louis Green Building Council knows challenges lie ahead.

“Coming back from COVID and how that’s going to change the occupancy of buildings, that’s a big question in my mind.” With the normalization of working at home, “how will that change how our buildings are used and how energy is used? It feels like there’s a lot of uncertainty in how we move forward.”

Lo, of the Institute for Market Transformation, agreed that the changing climate and the pandemic have complicated the built environment.

“I think there is a growing awareness that businesses need and are expected to do more. What they need help in, and what makes them reluctant, is sometimes how to get there. Hubs give them an idea of how to get there.”

Back in Kansas City, Sadowski thinks the way forward could lie in the new apartment complex known as Second + Delaware Apartments, a development of 276 units between downtown and the Missouri River. She invited building owners and managers to a tour this week.

Owners of the project claim that largely due to triple-pane windows, 16-inch walls and rooftop solar panels, it uses 92% less energy than most comparable structures. The building manager said that within eight months of opening this past January, the complex was fully occupied.

It’s an example of what Sadowski would like to see all over the Kansas City metro area, but first and foremost in affordable housing units. With inefficient window air conditioning units, lots of leaks and high energy bills, low-cost housing tends to be “ripe for improvement,” she said.

“I walked around that building in the heat of summer,” Sadowski said. “They have these tiny rooftop units managing the air conditioning for the entire building. This is a game-changer, different than any type of construction that came before it. It’s a project that, until you see it in your own city, it’s impossible to see that it’s something you could do.”