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City Slicker

Laurie Kerr is the director of the City Energy Project, a national initiative launched by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, to help 10 American cities reduce carbon emissions by improving energy efficiency in existing large-scale buildings. With this project, Kerr continues to develop the strategies she introduced as the deputy director for Green Building and Energy Efficiency at the New York City mayors office under Michael Bloomberg. There, she played an integral role in crafting PlaNYC, a sweeping program to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030, in part by targeting energy performance of the citys building stock.

By Nicole Anderson
May 2014
Photo © Axel Dupeux
Kerr outside the American Museum of Natural History
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GreenSource: You are working in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City. How did you select the 10 cities?

LK: It was a courtship. We looked at about 30 cities and eventually narrowed it down to the cities that felt this was the right thing for them to do at the right time.

What can cities do to improve energy performance, and what kind of financial resources will be required? Energy efficiency is the cheapest form of energy, but, as somebody said, it is like eating a lobster: there is a lot of good food, but it's hard to get to. How do you get to this? One way is information. Building owners don't know what they could be doing to improve their energy performance, and tenants don't have information about their energy use. This pervasive lack of knowledge is a huge impediment. Another is really about aligning financial and market incentives to make sure buildings have access to financing. Finally, there are leading-edge programs within city government or universities or hospitals that are set up to do 30 percent reductions right now. Cities can really think about what fits with their market, and their politics, and their general culture.

Why cities and why existing buildings? Clearly there is inertia at the national level, and that is one reason for a focus on cities, but it goes beyond that. Cities have always had more jurisdictional power over their building stock. But also cities have a lot to gain in terms of avoided infrastructure, avoided pollution, and lowered cost of living. The reason we focused on buildings is, really, the numbers show that is where you can make a big impact quickly. On average in the United States, 38 to 40 percent of energy use is in buildings. But if you look in cities, it is usually between 50 and 75 percent. Looking at growth rates by 2030 in cities, 85 percent of the buildings that will be there in 2030 will be buildings you already have right now. Yes, new buildings should be super-efficient, but the big gains have to happen in existing buildings. Why the large ones? Take a city like New York. It has literally 1 million buildings. What we realized at one point was that 2 percent of the properties are responsible for half of the square footage and more than half of the energy use. We can address 15,000 properties rather than a million buildings. You can get at half of the lobster by addressing this big chunk.

How is the City Energy Project organized? One big thing is providing knowledgeable manpower. Another big piece is giving people really technical resources. And then we're also providing some assistance for the cities to work with local NGOs for training or outreach. I think that in the early phases of the project, we'll be giving them a lot of information, and I think pretty soon they will be the experts.

What is the time frame for these 10 cities, and what comes after? We will be working with these cities for three to three and a half years. It is a long commitment because it takes a long time to do these things. Our big focus for the foreseeable future is making sure our 10 cities succeed, because I really think there won't be a phase two if we don't.


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