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NEW YORK CITY-With alternative energy sources proving difficult and expensive, governments and ‘green’ building owners are looking at improving the energy efficiency of existing stock, said speakers at the Urban GREEN Expo 2009, which concluded here yesterday.

Programs at Federal, state and local levels increasingly are encouraging retrofitting existing buildings to achieve significant energy savings, said speakers at various sessions at the conference, organized by the Urban Green Council–formerly the US Green Building Council. It’s more feasible than other strategies.

“There’s a wake-up in Washington that the nuclear piece and the transportation piece will be a lot harder and slower to develop, so there is an increased focus on energy efficiency,” said Truman Semans, a principal of GreenOrder, a New York City-based sustainability consultancy.

The Economic Recovery Act, which is passing financing from Federal agencies to the states “is unprecedented,” Semans added. “We are unlikely to see that direct an injection of cash any time in the near future. [Despite] a total of $42 billion for energy-related items, in hindsight many in the Administration would say it was underspent in buildings and efficiency.”

Detailed on Earth Day 2007, New York City’s proposed PLANYC is a series of goals to improve the city’s environment–partly by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30%–by 2030. The plan covers six areas: land, water, transportation, energy, air and climate change.

“This really is a concentrated effort between the city, the private sector, the incredible expertise in our architecture and engineering community, and the unusual number of incentives available in the state,” says Laurie Kerr, a senior policy advisor in the New York City Mayor’s office.

Because of New York’s vast public transit network and relatively small industrial base, buildings comprise 80% of its GHG emissions, twice the national average. Half of the reductions will come from existing buildings

“New construction just reduces the increase,” Kerr says.

Instead, a number of proposed initiatives will focus on the city’s existing office buildings, particularly the 22,000 buildings over 50,000 square feet, which account for half of the city’s office space and 45% of New York’s energy consumption. Energy code loopholes, which permitted the installation of non-compliant equipment during renovations of less than half of a building’s systems, will be closed. Audits would be required every 10 years, with owners required to make upgrades that would pay for themselves within five years. Lighting upgrades would be required, as would benchmarking, a major step forward.

“The energy consumption of a building is often opaque, not just to the person on the street, but often to the owners, occupants and operators of the buildings,” Kerr says. That can even extend to relatively new buildings.

“Even on day one, after being commissioned, buildings are not performing at the highest level,” said Jeffrey I. Brodsky, president of New York City-based Related Management. “You have this birth, and the responsibility of the management group is to raise this child and have it perform at the highest level. As far as we’re concerned, the legislative mandates are perfectly straightforward and reasonable.”

Financing, however, remains a problem for all initiatives. The problem is that skepticism remains over the returns on such investments.

“Mandates help push you over the barrier,” Brodsky said.

New York City is piloting a revolving loan program using Federal stimulus package funds, Kerr says, but with only $16 million, it is limited. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has been offering incentives for years, which many building owners have used.

In fact, smart owner/developers have long been retrofitting existing buildings simply as a good business practice, as well as anticipating legislation, said Ken Hubbard, an executive vice president of Houston-based Hines.

“Developers and architects some time ago saw this as an opportunity to get a competitive advantage,” Hubbard said. “The private sector is not waiting for Federal programs. Someone will come up with a mezzanine fund or debt fund. One of you will figure it out and make a lot of money.”

PLANYC is still under negotiation, Kerr said, with the mayor’s office looking at a vote this fall. And building owners will continue at their own pace.

“It was crazy to think this was going to be a revolution,” Hubbard said. “It is more likely an evolution.”

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