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Decarbonizing the Empire State Building – A Model for Sustainability

Reos Partners
October, 2022


Empire State Realty Trust’s Dana Robbins Schneider discusses the Empire State Building’s decarbonization strategy with Reos Partners.

The Empire State Building (ESB), one of the most iconic buildings in the world, is also the leading international model of building sustainability. In the past decade, the building has reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 54% and counting through an industry-leading deep energy retrofit that in its most recent, fully documented year saved $5.86 million in annual energy costs. Now the Empire State Building’s owner, Empire State Realty Trust (ESRT), has charted a path for other buildings to follow in its footsteps through the Empire Building Playbook – an innovative, open-source playbook developed through collaborative work with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the Clinton Global Initiative, and Reos Partners. 

The Empire State Building has worked on decarbonization efforts and tested the business case for investment in deep energy retrofits since 2007. Through this work, ESRT proved that decarbonization efforts have an incredible return on investment. 

With the 2019 passage of New York’s Local Law 97, large buildings have until 2024 to meet city-imposed emissions caps or potentially face millions of dollars in fines. Faced with questions from the marketplace about how to comply and inspired by the sustainability efforts of the Empire State Building, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) launched the Empire Building Challenge. The incentive provided $50 million in funding to high-rise building owners to test innovative new retrofit solutions. The goal is to “harness the commitments of preeminent real estate developers and unleash the collective creativity of the world’s leading R&D teams, architects, engineers, and manufacturers.” 

The key output of the first cohort of the Challenge, the Empire Building Playbook shares a replicable process “for existing commercial buildings to develop a pathway to carbon reduction with proven returns on investment.” 

In this conversation, Dana Robbins Schneider, senior vice president, director of energy, sustainability, and ESG at ESRT shares her thoughts on the collaborative work that paves the way for climate resilience and a carbon-neutral future. 

Why is leading the way on decarbonization important for the Empire State Building? 

Our motivation comes from the fact that buildings and the people inside of them are the largest contributors to emissions in the US. In cities like New York, 70% of emissions come from buildings. This isn’t because buildings are bad. It’s because people in the buildings need heating and cooling and lights and all their equipment. This is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions by far. 

We believe we can be part of the solution. And not only can we solve these challenges to be a leader for our shareholders and our tenants, but we can also help other buildings follow our lead.

We’ve provided a free model illustrated with a step-by-step guide so everybody can replicate what we've done. Our case studies show what we did, what worked, what didn't work, and why. Nothing is copyrighted. That was really important to us and part of what we proposed to NYSERDA. A virtual, living Playbook is critical because the process is constantly evolving. Retrofitting isn’t something you do once and then you're done. As technology and the market evolves, so do the updates we need to make. 

Why do you see this work as a fitting role for this iconic building?

The Empire State Building has been a beacon of hope since it was built during the Great Depression. It continues to be that light in the hardest times. During the pandemic, amid all the uncertainty, we could still come together and show proof of concept for something most buildings don't know how to do yet. 

We just announced in August that the Empire State Building and our entire commercial portfolio are carbon neutral. The next phase for us is to figure out net zero. We are committed to our target of net zero emissions with an 80% reduction in operational emissions at the Empire State Building by 2030 and for our entire portfolio by 2035. 

Whose idea was it to start the Empire Building Challenge? What did you hope to accomplish with this? 

The Empire Building Challenge flows with legislation. In New York City, we have both Local Law 97, the most stringent climate legislation for buildings in the world, and the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), the New York State law for the decarbonization of our electric grid. We were already doing this work because of our own environmental goals, but these laws and legislation put us in a different position. We were able to lead and prove this work is a great return on investment. It not only differentiates us and adds value for our tenants, but it shuts down naysayers who would try to argue against this kind of essential legislation. Even if you don't believe in climate change, we can show you that no investment costs more than the investment. 

The Empire Building Challenge is a program developed by Governor Cuomo and NYSERDA to help further incentivize the decarbonization work that we do at the Empire State Building. In 2019, we developed a proposal for NYSERDA and created a two-year program for our decarbonization work. We proposed that this project wouldn't only be for us. We brought in other New York City landlords to work with us. It positions New York to be the leader in the U.S. and globally around decarbonization solutions. 

Why should other real estate developers take advantage of the information provided in this Playbook? What would you say to a developer who doesn’t think this work is necessary or important?

Specifically in New York, this helps with compliance. But anywhere, you would be remiss not to do it because it has proven return on investment and is the number one solution to address emissions reductions in large cities. To me, it's a no-brainer. We've made this case so clearly and laid out how to do it. There's no excuse. This is one of the rare things that makes money and addresses climate change and leads to healthier spaces for the people occupying these buildings. It's essential.

Schneider Dana Robbins
Dana Robbins Schneider is senior vice president, director of energy, sustainability and ESG for Empire State Realty Trust. Dana defines, leads and executes a comprehensive program for all company and property level energy and sustainability initiatives and industry-leading best practices, and coordinates and develops the company’s ESG and wellness programs and data. Dana analyzes and implements actionable measures which drive energy efficiency and performance at the whole building, systems, and tenant level including proactive planning for LL97 and 80X50. Dana and her team focus on measurable, actionable impacts in energy, water, waste, and indoor environmental quality to drive ROI and healthy buildings.

Cover photo by Neil Cooper on Unsplash

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