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Beyond the Gridlock: How DC Is Creating a Sustainable Future

Published: May 22, 2014 Blog Post

From the outside, seeing the recent clean energy policy gridlock makes it hard to imagine that surrounding Capitol Hill is a city that’s racing toward a sustainable and energy-efficient future, and faster than almost any other in the country. DC’s residents are likely familiar with the great strides the city has made in becoming one of the most walk/bike/transit friendly cities in the U.S., but there's another aspect they may be less familiar with — the sustainability of DC buildings.

Take a walk down any given street in the District, and chances are you’ll see a building sporting a LEED plaque or ENERGY STAR label on its entrance. DC has the second most ENERGY STAR buildings in the country behind Los Angeles. It trailed L.A. by just eight buildings last year and is poised to take the top spot this year. DC also has more square feet of LEED-certified real estate per resident than any large city.

With public and private leadership spurring innovative green building and energy efficiency laws, DC has established itself as a sustainability powerhouse and an urban green laboratory. And with the goals of Sustainable DC, including a 50 percent energy use/carbon reduction by 2032, it has no plans of slowing down.

In 2015 DC will host Greenbuild, the world's largest conference and expo dedicated to green building. Upwards of 25,000 people typically participate in this annual Superbowl of sustainability. DC will have a lot to crow about at Greenbuild.

The city recently adopted one of the greenest building codes in the country. This may not sound exciting (building codes rarely do), but it will require new buildings to save water and be as much as 30 percent more energy-efficient.

Steps that businesses and building owners have taken, such as measuring their energy use, turning off lights at night, greening their leases, and adding solar panels have all made big impacts. One of the first sustainable energy utilities in the nation—the DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) is using utility ratepayer funds to deliver financial incentives, technical assistance, and information to District residents and businesses, helping them to save millions of dollars on energy costs, while creating jobs.

The District was also the first jurisdiction in the country to adopt a law requiring private buildings to measure and publish their energy performance. This set off an energy data tidal wave—eight other cities including NYC and San Francisco have followed DC. And just last month Montgomery County, Md., right across the District line, became the first suburban county to adopt a similar law.

With this new transparency, DC has been able to access information it never could before. The benchmarking data confirms that its buildings are highly efficient—the average ENERGY STAR score for large, commercial buildings is a 77—which means they’re performing better than about 77 percent of the commercial buildings in the nation.

And buildings over 200,000 square feet, which have reported multiple years of data, have decreased their energy use by 3 percent per year from 2010 to 2013. With buildings accounting for 75 percent of DC’s greenhouse gas emissions, these year-on-year improvements are a big deal.

The DC government has now gone even farther by putting in place one of the most transparent and detailed disclosures on government energy use of any city in the world (we’re talking 15-minute interval data for most District government buildings).The District and the Downtown Business Improvement District have also pledged to reduce energy use by 20 percent by 2020 as part of the national Better Buildings Challenge.

The net result of these victories is that DC has cut its energy use, reducing pollution, including carbon emissions. And, it has done so while its population has continued to grow by over 1,000 residents per month.

As highlighted by the aggressive goals of the Sustainable DC plan and the clear challenge posed by climate change, despite DC’s successes, there is much work to be done. Greenbuild will provide a unique opportunity for DC to unveil major green accomplishments and plans. I hope and expect that the DC Council and the city’s new mayor will rise to the occasion.