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Making energy efficiency sexy can be a challenge from a messaging standpoint, but it’s also an extremely effective greenhouse gas reduction tool that throws off considerable dividends in the form of reduced operating costs.

And if efficiency is an easy carbon emission reduction method, then lighting is energy efficiency’s low-hanging fruit “because it’s the cheapest efficiency improvement you can make and people see it,” Richard Yancy, Executive Director of Green Light New York recently told Breaking Energy.

As many home and building owners know, you often have to spend money to save money when it comes to energy efficiency upgrades. Replacing a facility’s HVAC system is a significant investment, but simply replacing a few older components might not qualify for the juicier incentives utilities’ offer.

At the residential level, in order to achieve an efficiency rating that qualifies for the maximum central air conditioning rebate – $1,000 for Con Edison electricity customers – one must install equipment to a 16 Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating. For older homes, the upfront cost for that work can breach the $10,000 level, which leaves many selecting a cheaper, less efficient option.

Enter lighting, which Yancy described in his experience as “a gateway drug to energy efficiency.” As an architect on the west coast, Yancy said the Pacific Energy Center in San Francisco and the Seattle Design Center helped inspire him to create a similar institution in New York: Project Green Light.

Green Light New York aspires to be a “living room for energy efficiency,” that combines educational space with interactive mock-ups and creates a forum for learning and discourse. GLNY’s efficiency and lighting resource center is located in downtown Manhattan in a historic building on Chambers Street near City Hall and the federal courthouse, a location that provides great old-new juxtaposition with state-of-the-art lighting on display in an “ancient” New York City building.

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Interior lighting consumes over one third of the electricity used in New York City’s commercial buildings, so it’s easy to see why lighting is a natural place to focus energy efficiency efforts. Buildings are also responsible for emitting nearly 80% of all New York City’s greenhouse gases, though much of this is generated from heating systems that burn heavy fuel oil.

There are several regulations in place to encourage commercial building lighting upgrades – the benchmarking law and lighting upgrade law together cover 3.85 billion square feet of NYC commercial space. “We’ve been building relationships with decision makers and doing training around codes, lighting controls and retrofits,” Yancy said. GLNY is bringing on stakeholders – often as board members – from the real estate community. “We are bringing on high-level real estate professionals who recognize the value and importance of this initiative,” Yancy explained.

There is also a demand management play when advanced daylight controls are incorporated into building systems, as these cut power use during peak demand periods when electricity is most expensive.

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Green Light’s strategy for pushing energy efficiency initiatives forward starts with publishing authoritative analysis that includes proof-of-concept case studies confirming feasibility and economic attractiveness. The studies also identify some of the easier retrofit projects and make next-step recommendations that can be followed up with concrete action. “We know the savings are there, but how do we get there?” Yancy asked. “These case studies identify challenges and opportunities that lead to actual projects,” he said.

And while commercial buildings offer significant energy savings opportunities, multi-family residential buildings are also huge energy users and greenhouse gas contributors, thus NYC’s vast multi-family housing universe is GLNY’s next focus.

In addition to building out their training and demonstration space, Green Light New York is launching a new website as soon as next month, and they are hosting the New York Energy Week Energy Efficiency Roundtable on Tuesday June 17.

Lighting is a great entry-point for building owners that want to reduce operating costs by leveraging energy efficient technology. “People often associate efficiency with lower quality, but you don’t have to sacrifice,” said Yancy.

Full disclosure: Breaking Energy is a media partner for New York Energy Week – the groundbreaking event series organized by Energy Solutions Forum – and the author is on the NYEW Board of Directors.

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