Empire State Building Becomes Unexpected Model of Efficiency

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Peter Lehner.

The Empire State Building was never intended to be low-impact. It was built as a symbol of the power of New York–and today, it’s a surprising case study in the power of efficiency. A series of cost-effective, energy-efficient retrofits have dramatically reduced energy waste in the Empire State Building, saving $2.4 million in operating costs in the first year alone. In the next few years, when the project is complete, the building is expected to reduce its energy use by nearly 40 percent–and save about $4.4 million each year.

Empire State Building

image via Empire State Building

The waste-cutting retrofits were designed as part of a larger overhaul of the building’s aging infrastructure by owner Malkin Holdings. President Tony Malkin (husband of NRDC trustee Shelly Malkin), wasn’t about to take a senseless risk with his single largest real estate asset. The proposition had to make business sense. “I’m a capitalist,” Malkin told Harvard Magazine. “I wanted to make money. This is not charity.”

Some buildings can waste as much as 80 percent of the energy they use, as a result of improper insulation, leaks, old HVAC systems, lighting, and other inefficiencies. All that energy waste is of course, a waste of money–building owners and tenants pay for electricity that’s literally flying out the window. Yet many building owners perceive retrofits as an expense, rather than an opportunity for savings. Over nine months, a team of real estate, energy service and climate experts worked to prove to Malkin that an energy efficient retrofit made economic sense. Johnson Controls, an energy service company, guaranteed that its portion of the work would provide roughly 20 percent savings for 15 years–or they would foot the bill for the difference.

The project team considered about 60 potential strategies, finally selecting 8 projects that would dramatically reduce the building’s energy use, and also pay for themselves within three years. The team knew that high-efficiency windows, for example, could dramatically cut energy waste. But replacing the building’s 6,514 windows outright would cost $20 million.

NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.