March 25, 2015 | Chris Potter

“Beat L.A.” is a well-known phrase throughout the basketball universe, but after today it may be entering the lexicon of green building proponents in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Why? Because for the first time since its 2008 inception, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of top cities with the most ENERGY STAR-certified buildings showed the District squeak past reigning green buildings leader Los Angeles to take first place with a total of 480 ENERGY STAR buildings—L.A. was a close second with an impressive 475. The rankings were released at the 2015 Building Energy Summit.

The D.C. metro area, which also holds a top spot for total LEED-certified projects, is at the eye of the storm for innovative policy and programs that are being created in cities to spur energy savings and cut pollution.

The District’s Sustainable DC plan, combined with a landmark green construction code, energy benchmarking laws in both the District and Montgomery County, and programs like the DC Sustainable Energy Utility and the Arlington Green Office Challenge have all helped create a blueprint for continuous progress in the area.

Another driving factor for the District’s top honor this year is having the Federal Government in its backyard. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), considered the nation’s largest public real estate organization, adopted green leasing practices back in 2011 to increase energy and water efficiency—it now only leases space in ENERGY STAR-certified buildings, if they are available.

A large and growing portion of the private real estate sector is also integrating sustainability into business strategies and measuring and managing its energy use through ENERGY STAR’s Portfolio Manager. Leading companies no longer see benchmarking and energy efficiency as a luxury but as a necessity. As a result, demand for ENERGY STAR-certified space is expected to continue on an upward trend.

Other metro areas that cracked into the EPA’s top 10 were Atlanta (328), New York (299), San Francisco (292), Chicago (251), Dallas-Fort Worth (248), Houston (235), Denver (195), and Boston (176).  Five of the 10 leading cities have passed comprehensive energy benchmarking laws and six are participating in the City Energy Project, a joint initiative of IMT and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that aims to increase the energy efficiency of large existing buildings in 10 major American cities through localized efforts. City Energy Project cities that also made EPA’s list of top 25 large cities were Philadelphia (158) and Salt Lake City (55).

“This list shows how America’s cities are leading the nation in cutting carbon emissions and fighting climate change,” said Jean Lupinacci, chief of the ENERGY STAR Commercial & Industrial program in a statement released by EPA today. “By embracing energy efficiency as a simple and effective pathway to reach their sustainability goals, these cities are demonstrating the tangible benefits that result from simple, cost-effective reductions in energy use.”

Skylines are often instantly recognizable and are what form a city’s visible identity. Unfortunately, most cities in the U.S. also have an invisible (and sometimes not so invisible) identity in the form of energy waste and pollution that emits from their largest buildings. In the District, energy use in buildings accounts for 75 percent of the city’s carbon emissions—and makes up a similar proportion in cities like Chicago and New York City. In New York City, that figure jumps to nearly 80 percent. This is why concerted efforts in cities to improve building energy performance like the City Energy Project are so vital—and it’s why public and private building stakeholders should aim for certifications like ENERGY STAR.

ENERGY STAR-certified office buildings cost $0.50 cents less per square foot to operate than average office buildings, and use nearly two times less energy per square foot than average office buildings. To date, more than 25,000 buildings across America have earned the EPA’s ENERGY STAR designation. These buildings have saved more than $3.4 billion on utility bills and prevented greenhouse gas emissions equal to the annual electricity use from 2.4 million homes.

To earn certification, commercial buildings that earn EPA’s ENERGY STAR must perform in the top 25 percent of similar buildings nationwide and must be independently verified by a licensed professional engineer or a registered architect. Many types of commercial buildings can earn the ENERGY STAR, including office buildings, K-12 schools, hotels, and retail stores.

Looking ahead, we can predict there will be many more buildings to gain little blue labels over the next 12 months—there’s momentum in L.A. and other cities around the country that are working on their own suites of policies and initiatives to address energy use in existing buildings, which will most likely result in an even tighter race next year.

More on the 2015 top cities:

More on ENERGY STAR certified buildings:

More on earning ENERGY STAR certification for commercial and industrial buildings.

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Meet the Author

Chris Potter

Former Communications Manager, IMT

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