From the data center to the daycare center, real estate developers are transforming buildings’ carbon footprint.
To find an impactful place for sustainability to take root, look no further than the walls surrounding you. Buildings and their construction account for 36% of global energy use and 39% of carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to the U.N. Environment Program; in the U.S., it’s the same story.
“Despite being somewhat below-the-radar, energy efficiency is a vital part of decarbonization,” says Energy Analyst Pavel Molchanov. “There is a wide variety of demand drivers for building efficiency, including employee health and wellness, energy cost savings, and state or municipal regulations.” These factors have most builders seeing green. Nearly a third of U.S. construction firms surveyed in 2018 said green, energy-efficient buildings were already a majority of their work, and 45% anticipate it being a majority in 2021, according to Dodge Data & Analytics.
Here, we take a look at some interesting green building initiatives that set the pace for innovation.
Skyscrapers – the buildings that enabled U.S. cities to grow quickly and efficiently for more than a century – have gotten a green makeover in modern times. Building designers have dreamed up ingenious ways to save on water and electricity costs by incorporating a variety of clean technologies into their structures.
One example is Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, which opened in 2018. The tallest office building in the Western U.S., it’s powered by 100% renewable power from wind turbines, boasts geothermal cooling, and is integrated with a nearby transit center that features a rooftop public park. The most remarkable thing about this 61-story tower, however, is its water recycling system that saves more than 7.8 million gallons a year – a big deal in drought-prone California. The system collects water from the roof, showers and sinks, runs it through a centralized treatment center, and then repurposes it for toilets and drip irrigation systems. The building’s LEED certification made it possible for Boston Properties to issue green bonds to finance construction.
Another energy-saving standout is significantly older – the Empire State Building, built in 1931. Jones Lang LaSalle’s sustainability services team led a $550 million remodel of the New York City skyscraper from 2008 to 2012. Through new software for temperature control, super-insulated windows, and elevators that generate electricity through braking, this beacon of the New York skyline is now among the top 10% of energy efficient buildings.
An unrelenting pursuit of efficiency is the name of the game for data centers: giant server farms that enable everything from launching a YouTube video to sending an email. That’s because they are energy hogs, accounting for about 2% of all U.S. electricity use.
So when you see companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google pledging to shrink their data centers’ carbon footprint, know that they have their work cut out for them. Google’s data centers, for example, feature advanced cooling techniques that use outside air when possible, smart temperature controls, and advanced power distribution techniques. But their secret weapon is applying machine learning to fine-tune each setting – resulting in a 40% reduction in energy used for cooling and 15% reduction in overall energy overhead, Google reports. The company plans to share its methods with others.
Technology companies are also making good on their carbon promises by buying carbon offsets and making investments in large-scale wind and solar projects. In addition to saving money on operating costs, these investments help improve the ESG scores of their stocks.
The planet we call home
Homes and apartments are also targets for increased energy efficiency, with countries like Germany leading the way by promoting green techniques among builders and offering incentives to make efficiency upgrades, in the hopes of pushing the building renovation rate to 2% per year. Hitting that target would result in a majority of German buildings remodeled by 2050, government figures show.
In the U.S., homeowners are warming to the idea of rooftop solar panels as costs have come down, with 46% of those surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2019 saying they have given it serious thought. And families are also reducing their water use – 68% of those surveyed by Pew said they have done so for environmental reasons.
The knowledge and technology to reduce the carbon footprint of U.S. buildings is available to us. However, it will take more than a few home renovations and ultra-efficient skyscrapers to make it happen. Creating a low-carbon economy is a marathon, not a sprint, happening one green project at a time.
Sources: Raymond James Equity Research; company reports; Dodge Data & Analytics; U.N. Environment Program; U.S. Department of Energy; U.S. Energy Information Administration, Pew Research Center
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