The city of Stamford knew it had a problem back in 2006 when a study of its top commercial buildings showed them to be energy guzzlers. Then-Mayor Dannel P. Malloy was appalled at how big the city’s streetlight bill was. And then the overloaded electric grid exploded – literally – flames licking out of manhole covers, leaving downtown buildings dark and hot on the steamy afternoon of Aug. 3.

Malloy  set in motion plans for an energy improvement district to start dealing with the energy issues, but they stalled when he left office in 2009.

The effort is now getting up a new head of steam with the announcement last week that Stamford has become the sixth city in the nation and the first in New England to join a three-year old program called the 2030 Districts.

It’s a private-sector program designed to lower energy and water use and to reduce urban greenhouse gas emissions.  It does not rely on government, is entirely voluntary, and there are no penalties if goals aren’t met.

“I wasn’t sure of that,” said Joe McGee, vice president for public policy and programs at the Business Council of Fairfield County, the state’s largest business association. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if business will really respond to that because generally it doesn’t respond unless there’s a law and they have to’.”

Goals for new buildings, major renovations and new infrastructure
Studies have shown that buildings are responsible for nearly half the energy consumption and emissions in the country. The goal of the 2030 Challenge as devised by the non-profit Architecture 2030 is to reduce both in urban areas. This challenge serves as the foundation for 2030 Districts.
Category Goal
Energy use Immediate 60 percent reduction below the national average. Carbon Neutral by 2030.
Water Use Immediate 50 percent reduction below current district average.
CO2 emissions of auto and freight Immediate 50 percent reduction below the current district average.
Goals for existing buildings and infrastructure operations
Category Goal
Energy use Immediate 10 percent reduction below the national average. Fifty percent reduction by 2030.
Water Use Minimum 10 percent percent reduction below district average by 2015. Fifty percent reduction by 2030.
CO2 emissions of auto and freight Minimum 10 percent percent reduction below district average by 2015. Fifty percent reduction by 2030.
Source: 2030 Districts

But the Council decided it was worth a try and partnered with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment to be the private sector leaders of a 2030 district in the core of downtown Stamford. It is believed to be the first such major business/environmental collaboration in the state.

“It was really interesting because it was led by business,” McGee said. “It was property owners and tenants saying, ‘You know, we need to be more assertive on climate change; we need to be assertive on efficiency.

“Instead of complying with government regulations and being forced to do this, could we actually impose these standards on ourselves?’”

The district model

The 2030 Districts blend participants from three categories: property owners or managers; community partners, such as the Business Council or the Fund for the Environment; and professional organizations, such as Connecticut Light and Power Co., which is among the nearly two-dozen founding members of Stamford 2030.

In participating, they agree to the district principles, which are set nationally and generally focus on energy use, water use and emissions from transportation. The Stamford district will also look at ways it can respond to climate change and sea-level rise.

Then there are specific goals. For Stamford, with the main focus on older buildings, the goals are 10 percent reductions in energy use, water use and emissions by 2015 and a 50 percent reduction by 2030.

New buildings are targeted to become carbon neutral by 2030. Water use and emissions would be half the district average.

But the first step for Stamford is figuring out what it’s got now.

Local 2030 operatives don’t know how many buildings or square feet of commercial space there are in the district. The total generally used for all of Stamford’s top commercial space is 14 million square feet, with another nearly 3 million square feet in second-tier space. The 2030 District’s founding members represent about 2.5 million square feet.

Aquarion Water Company, which provides between 12.5 and 13.5 million gallons of water each day to 18,400 residential and 2,300 commercial customers in Stamford, can only say that about half the water goes to commercial users. It can’t say how much water goes to the district, or how that water is used – in air-conditioning cooling towers versus drinking water, for instance – in any way that will help figure out how to reduce it.

So Aquarion, which is a district member, along with all the participating buildings, will have to calculate and define their energy and water usage as well as determine the forms of transportation used by the people who work in the buildings. Those levels will set the benchmarks for reductions, which will be reported yearly for the group as a whole, not for individual buildings.

Organizers of the first 2030 District in Seattle in 2011 found that data sharing was a contentious issue (as was the idea of a membership fee, which was discarded early on). Building owners didn’t necessarily want their energy and water consumption out there for competitive reasons, but reporting as a group was more palatable.

The Stamford organizers are confident that the combined reporting, coupled with the ability for building owners to share information as they begin energy-reduction projects and the possibility of incentives available to them as a group, will make the district work, even though there are no rules and no penalties.

Many tools to help make buildings energy efficient and pay for it are already out there.

For instance, the Connecticut Green Bank, which funds clean energy projects, already has a number of products businesses can use to finance energy upgrades. The bank has also joined the district as a community member

“Although there’s information out there, and the tools are out there, they don’t seem to be easy enough to use,” said Don Strait, president of Connecticut Fund for the Environment. He admitted the district concept does “take people a little while to get.”

“It’s not each individual building owner being held publicly accountable; it’s the group as a whole, but that allows for a voluntary cooperative approach. I think that it could be very powerful.”

Megan Saunders, an urban planner who was hired as the district’s executive director, agreed. “I actually think that is the beauty of it, that it’s voluntary,” she said. “People can share their property data without feeling that they’re going to be penalized if they’re not performing as well as their neighbor.”

The district’s operations will be funded privately, which Saunders estimated would require about $200,000 in its first year.

It’s business

Organizers point out this is no feel-good environmental gesture. It’s hardcore business economics. Stamford’s energy economy is the second-largest in New England and the fastest growing. In real estate, it’s no longer considered a sub-market of New York. It now ranks in the top 30 commercial real estate markets in the country.

But a recent survey by commercial real-estate firm CBRE ranked it 28th out of those 30 in terms of how “green” that commercial real estate is.

“That is not acceptable,” McGee said. “This is in the self-interest of building owners and the city to position itself as a national leader in energy efficiency and the improvement of the quality of these buildings.”

Hank Ashforth, executive vice president of the Ashforth Company, which owns one 74,000-square-foot office building in the district, is practically evangelical when it comes to the benefits of energy upgrades. In 2012 he switched his building’s two parking garages from fluorescent to LED lighting. The payback on the investment took less than 15 months, and he estimated it saves 253,000 pounds of carbon a year

“I very much see this as an economic development tool, and that a city made up of well-run efficient buildings can only be that much stronger as far as attracting good new tenants, more employees, more residents to our area,” said Ashforth. 

Potential tenants routinely ask how “green” a building is, he said. “And it most definitely is a question that is asked by major tenants, Fortune 500 tenants, Fortune 1000 for sure; absolutely.”

Reckson, a division of S.L. Green, is one of the largest property owners in the District, with 1.5 million square feet of space in 11 buildings, including the seven in Landmark Square. Jay Black, the company’s director of sustainability, said joining the district is good business.

“You’re thinking about other things that might be equally important, such as looking at energy efficiency as a means to improve cost, achieving additional return on your investments,” he said.

In the beginning

The impetus for the 2030 Districts came in 2002 when architect Edward Mazria made what he felt was a startling discovery. Buildings, not transportation as was commonly thought, were responsible for nearly half the energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions in the country. In response to that he established Architecture 2030 to promote what the planning, design and building communities could do to improve the environment — without government.

“Essentially it’s a private-public partnership,” Mazria said from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., reversing the often-used “public-private” phrase. “The world was not transformed because governments passed legislation,” he said. “It’s essentially a paradigm shift that happens because the leadership begins to set out a new way of dong things.”

In 2006 he was that leadership, launching the 2030 Challenge for new buildings, calling for them to be carbon neutral by 2030. Eventually he added in existing buildings.

Peter Geller, a young architect in Seattle, decided to broaden the individual building concept into a whole section of his city, and the 2030 district plan was born in a form that could be used in other cities.

Geller’s advice to Stamford: “Don’t ever take the focus off property owners and what they need and what they want,” he said. “Don’t try to do too much out of the gate.”

Los Angeles, Denver, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh followed Seattle. Several more cities, including San Francisco; Dallas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Portland, ME; and Toronto are poised to join. Architecture 2030 provides coordination.

City help in Stamford

In Stamford, the District may also benefit from renewed efforts by the city to finally implement the original energy improvement district. Its focus has shifted to municipal buildings with a plan to eventually get City Hall on a microgrid so the emergency management office housed there will be operational when power goes out.

Thomas Madden, the city’s economic development director, sees both districts as encouraging economic growth using an updated model.

“What’s really spurring it is a lot of the millennials that are coming out of university who have been really brought up in a more green environment,” he said. “That’s one of the first things these people check out, ‘What’s your sustainability policy?’”

“Reputational” is the way the Business Council’s Joe McGee puts it. “First class companies want to be in first class buildings that are in first class communities,” he said. “That’s more powerful than any law you can pass.”

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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