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Los Angeles Tops in Magnitude of Green Buildings, Not Surprisingly. What Surprises are there in the Energy Star listings?

A New Scientist article this month reports surprise that Los Angeles would top this year’s EPA list of metropolitan areas with green Energy Star buildings:

WHICH US city is the greenest of all, in terms of numbers of energy-efficient commercial buildings? The surprising answer is Los Angeles, with 293, well ahead of Washington DC with 203 and San Francisco with 173, reports the US Environmental Protection Agency this week.

The rankings are part of the agency’s annual list of the top 25 US cities earning “energy star” ratings for their commercial and municipal buildings.

Why is this surprising? Among U.S. metropolitan areas (which is what the EPA compared, strictly speaking, not cities) Los Angeles is the second largest in population with 12.9 million people. Where there’s a larger population, there are more commercial buildings, and so Los Angeles really should be at or near the top in terms of the number of Energy Star commercial buildings. What’s surprising is what’s actually out of proportion:

  • The New York City metropolitan area, which is the #1 most populous metropolitan area in the nation with 19.1 million people, is only #10 in the number of Energy Star commercial buildings. The NYC metro area has only 90 Energy Star commercial buildings, just one more than the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, home to just 3.3 million people. On a per capita basis, Minneapolis-St. Paul is doing nearly six times better than the Big Apple.
  • Although Los Angeles may have a greater sheer magnitude of Energy Star commercial buildings than the metro areas of Washington DC and San Francisco, it is actually performs more poorly than those two communities on a per capita basis. While Los Angeles may boast 22.8 Energy Star commercial buildings per million population, Washington DC has 37.1 Energy Star commercial buildings per million people and San Francisco has 40.1 Energy Star commercial buildings per million people.
  • The relatively small Lakeland-Winter Haven metropolitan area in Florida (home to just 583,403 people) has a whopping 120 Energy Star commercial buildings. That’s a rate of 205.7 Energy Star commercial buildings per million people. That’s surprising.

If we were to ignore the simple magnitude of green energy buildings in a metropolitan area and instead look at the rate of such buildings per million people, we’d get a different set of rankings reflecting the intensity of Energy Star efforts more than the size of a community. The rankings would look like this:

2009 EPA report on Energy Star commercial buildings per capita

The New York City metro area may be in the Top Ten for Energy Star commercial buildings in sheer number, but when we take into consideration how big it is, the community drops to last place. Most of the cities that have low numbers of Energy Star commercial buildings per capita are, like New York City, among the older generation of big cities. These cities built their major commercial buildings long ago, and so it’s understandable that these older buildings wouldn’t have high Energy Star ratings. Exceptions to this pattern are the low-ranking Sun Belt metro areas of Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and San Diego, which could be doing better, and San Francisco, Des Moines and Washington DC, which are established cities nonetheless maintaining high Energy Star rankings.

And then there are the oddballs: why do Lakeland/Winter Haven Florida, Fort Collins Colorado and Ogden Utah have such a stratospherically high per capita representation of Energy Star commercial buildings? It helps to remember that the EPA isn’t directly measuring the concentration of green, environmentally-friendly commercial buildings. Rather, the indication is indirect: commercial buildings gain Energy Star status after they successfully apply for that status. Lakeland, Florida is engaged in a cooperative effort by government, utility and business interests to build a green brand for the community, which involves encouraging Energy Star registrations and leveraging the area’s hosting of a Greenhomewamalama and a connected Lakeland Green Expo.

Incomplete Energy Star maps of Ogden, Utah, Lakeland/Winter Haven, Florida, and Fort Collins, Colorado listed “Energy Star commercial buildings” betray another reason for these towns’ high Energy Star ratings results: most of the “commercial” buildings listed by the EPA for the Energy Star program are schools.

With the above information in mind, there are some legitimate questions to be asked about these ratings. Are the energy efficiencies in the Fort Collins, Lakeland and Ogden schools unusual for newer schools? With only 9,717 commercial buildings participating in the program nationwide, is the concentration of Energy Star buildings in a handful of communities related to better environmental practices or to more dedicated local self-reporting registration efforts? Even if the EPA’s Top 25 list is based mainly upon differences in the motivation to self-report, could it be that a community’s effort to register itself and market itself as a “Green” community would result in environmental improvements, no matter how self-serving the motivations?

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