One of the most iconic buildings in the world is running on clean electricity. On Wednesday, the company that owns the Empire State Building announced it had inked a deal to meet the electricity needs of not just that building but its entire portfolio with wind power.
The Washington Post broke the story that the skyscraper in the heart of Midtown is all-in on wind. The three-year power purchasing agreement also encompasses 13 other high rises and office buildings under Empire State Realty Trust’s ownership, making it the single biggest commercial real estate user of renewable power anywhere in the U.S. The Empire State Building itself has been running on renewables for a decade.
According to a press release, the switch to wind power will result in a savings of 450 million pounds (204 million kilograms) of carbon dioxide, which is equal to the emissions from New York’s taxi fleet for an entire year. It comes after the building announced last year that retrofits it completed on everything from windows to installing LED lights on its famous spire resulted in reducing its carbon footprint by 40%.
“We continue to advance our commitment to solutions that reduce our environmental impact,” Dana Robbins Schneider, senior vice president and director of energy, sustainability at Empire State Realty Trust, said in a statement. “Our tenants now work in carbon neutral offices and the investment community can recognize our leadership.”
The clean energy purchase doesn’t mean wind turbines somewhere outside the city will pump power right into the building. Rather, the contracts signed with Green Mountain Energy and Direct Energy mean the two service providers will ensure the equivalent amount of electricity used by the Empire State Building and others covered by the agreement is produced from wind somewhere in the U.S. But that shouldn’t detract from how big the announcement is.
“Driving the greater real estate community towards net zero energy requires stakeholders in the limelight, like the Empire State Building, to take first steps and inspire others,” Cara Carmichael, the principal of Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Buildings Program, said in an email. “The Empire State Building has always been a landmark in NYC and a leader in the prop-tech space. Now, it’s embracing its role as a leader in the energy space.”
Decarbonizing buildings is one of the most daunting tasks of the next decade, especially older ones like the Empire State Building. Cities are increasingly taking steps to ban gas hookups to new construction, which can help reduce emissions. Installing more efficient appliances, windows, doors, and lights is yet another avenue to reduce emissions that’s more easily done with newer buildings. But that work needs to be done for the much larger stock of buildings already, uh, built. There are an estimated 5.6 million commercial buildings and tens of millions of residential units all in need of a rapid clean-up to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Globally, a United Nations report released late last year puts a sharp point on how urgent the need to decarbonize buildings is; carbon emissions rose in 2019 and represent 38% of overall emissions.
The Empire State Building switching to wind power is both huge for setting a good example, and a small step in light of the steep climb we have absent policy interventions. But those interventions are already unfurling in ways that could make it easier for buildings to follow in its lead. At the city level, New York has put in place requirements for buildings to cut their emissions 40% by 2030. The city’s buildings have an even bigger carbon footprint than buildings do globally—more than 70% of the city’s carbon emissions come from structures—and stricter emissions standards will help clean up the city’s biggest source of pollution. The mandates coupled with seeing the Empire State Building go clean energy could pave the wave for the notoriously crotchety New York real estate industry to follow suit.
“The transition to zero emissions buildings will require a combination of market forces and government policy mandates,” Carmichael said. “Local policies may ruffle some feathers, but if we are to achieve the lofty decarbonization goals government intervention is a necessity.”
Federally, President Joe Biden’s recently signed executive orders have put the government on a path to tackle building emissions, too. By working to decarbonize federal infrastructure and putting the massive weight of the federal government’s purchasing power behind it, it could bring down costs of low- and no-emissions building materials for the general public. The order also includes the creation of a Climate Conservation Corps, which will be put to work to “bolster community resilience.” Weatherizing housing and installing household and community solar is certainly one way to do that and lower emissions, and it’s something to watch out for as the program takes shape. If those types of projects end up being approved, maybe we’ll even see the Empire State Building lit up green to celebrate.
Updated, 2/3/2021, 4:42 p.m.: This post has been updated to clarify the Empire State Building itself has had a renewable power contract for a decade.