Minneapolis' biggest buildings enlisted to fight climate change

Downtown Minneapolis
Minneapolis' biggest buildings, mostly located downtown, must meet a June 1, 2014 deadline to report their energy and water use to the city.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News File

Minnesota's largest city is about to reach a milestone in its effort to help fight climate change.

The largest buildings in Minneapolis must meet a June 1 deadline to report their energy and water use to the city. That data will eventually become public, and city officials hope it will lead those who manage and use those buildings to find ways to use less energy.

Buildings can be major energy hogs. In downtown Minneapolis alone, about 160,000 people work in hundreds of buildings daily. Heat or air conditioning keeps them comfortable as they use computers, servers and overhead lights.

Climate Cast: More climate change news

An analysis by the city in 2010 found that commercial and industrial buildings account for 46 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Minneapolis. So last year, the City Council passed an ordinance allowing Minneapolis officials to collect data on buildings' energy use.

Brendon Slotterback, the city's sustainability program coordinator, said many larger commercial buildings have already been comparing themselves to national benchmarks that account for a building's size and use characteristics. But he said others are new to the process.

"There could be a lot of really no-cost, low-cost things that they can do that can reduce their energy costs," Slotterback said. "And part of our work at the city over the next couple of years is to connect more with those building owners and say, 'Look, here's some really simple things you can do to save money.' "

Buildings 100,000 square feet or larger must report their energy data to the city by June 1. Next year, the data will be made public. The city has already published energy use data on public buildings, and that shows there's room for improvement. Among 50 buildings that received an Energy Star score, the average was 52 out of 100.

Reducing energy use can be as simple as programming thermostats or adding a sensor to turn off lights when people aren't using a room. Bigger projects include switching out old light fixtures for energy efficient LEDs or replacing an old heating and air conditioning system.

Many private buildings have already reduced energy costs, and owners and managers support the city's overall goal to reduce emissions, said Kevin Lewis, executive director of the Building Owners and Managers Association of greater Minneapolis.

But Lewis said the association's members feel disclosing energy use publicly is unnecessary -- and could cause problems, especially if the public doesn't understand, for instance, that historic buildings might have a harder time making improvements.

"If tenants look at a building by the rating for energy efficiency, if they decide not to invest as a tenant in a particular building, those buildings that maybe aren't as energy efficient as others might lose tenants and would therefore have some tough financial losses," he said.

City officials say they don't yet know what the effect of the ordinance will be. About a dozen large cities nationwide have similar rules, but there aren't very many years of data yet.

Aside from energy savings, cities have also seen companies that offer energy retrofits adding jobs. Minneapolis officials say they hope the ordinance will both reduce emissions and increase the value of the city's commercial real estate.

Obtaining good data is the first step.

One person easing the transition for building owners and managers is Don Bailey, a 76-year-old retired Honeywell engineer who helped develop a system that collects a building's data and generates a written narrative describing possible ways to save energy.

Basic data includes a building's type, year built, gross building area, parking area, daily occupants and operating hours per week.

"We're not telling them what to do, we're just giving them data and supporting visibility and good management," said Bailey, who works full time -- largely as a volunteer -- for the Minnesota Retiree Environmental Technical Assistance Program.

For Bailey, who believes people should reduce their impact on the environment, it's been exciting to be part of an effort that could make a difference.

"It's working," he said. "It's something they found that's politically tolerable and acceptable and meaningful."

After Saturday's deadline, Bailey and the other volunteers will help smaller commercial buildings -- ones that are between 50,000 and 100,000 square feet -- prepare to report their energy data for the first time next year.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.