BySylvester Brown on Wed, Jul 5, 2023 at 6:00 am
Ask an outsider about St. Louis, and they might tell you about the Gateway Arch, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner, barbecue and toasted ravioli. Being one of the top energy-efficient cities in the nation isn’t exactly our claim to fame.
But St. Louis has become a leader in setting new building energy standards. These standards are aimed at reducing carbon emissions, decreasing building operating costs and revitalizing building stock. St. Louis is only the fourth jurisdiction in the nation — and the first in the Midwest — to adopt policies designed to meet the nation’s energy and climate goals.
Malachi Rein is the director of the Building Energy Exchange St. Louis, or BE-Ex STL, which aims to be a resource for locals cutting emissions. He says St. Louis doesn’t require the resources of New York or D.C. to be a leader in energy efficiency. With ingenuity and a commitment to resources, he says, other cities can follow our lead.
“You don’t have to look like these big cities to have a great built environment, to have value in your building stock, to have buildings that perform well for their owners,” Rein stresses. “In fact, if you look like St. Louis, if you have populations that need extra support to overcome historic systemic issues, you can do it, too.”
The region faces serious threats as a changing climate increases temperatures and escalates the risk of bigger, more serious floods (see the first two chapters of this series online at riverfronttimes.com/readyornot). Yet local leaders haven’t always prioritized mitigating those risks — or done so intelligently.
The work being done on building standards is something different — a place where St. Louis is ahead of the curve. But as long-planned efforts to strengthen standards are finally reaching fruition, some local developers have questions. In a region plagued by inequities and a city perpetually short on cash, they ask, how do we make sure people in less affluent areas don’t get screwed?
And on a separate track, some Missouri lawmakers would like to block or even reverse the city’s innovations. Backed by home builders’ associations, they’re seeking to force the city back to the standards in place 14 years ago.
It’s part of a long-simmering feud between the state and its biggest metro area, and it could have a big impact on whether the city continues to innovate — or prioritizes growth at any cost instead of taking environmental impacts seriously.
An Emerging Leader in Building Energy Performance
Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, for example, enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil), solid waste and even trees.
Carbon dioxide is the major gas emitted by human activities, but there’s also methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gasses. Each of these gasses, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can remain in the atmosphere from a few years to a few thousand years. Some make the planet warmer by thickening the Earth's atmospheric blanket.
Since most urban dwellers aren’t farming cows or burning coal, efforts to reduce greenhouse gases in most cities are focused on the built environment — on buildings. According to the EPA, commercial and residential buildings combined account for nearly 40 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S. — much more than, say, cars or factories.
In the city of St. Louis, residential, commercial and industrial buildings account for a staggering 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to BE-Ex STL. If the nation is to achieve its goal of zero carbon by 2050 set forth by the Paris Agreement, which President Joe Biden rejoined in 2021, the federal government and the private sector must make significant investments in green technology. And places like St. Louis will have to be part of the solution.
Unlike traditional building codes and policies, the city’s new Building Energy Performance Standards, or BEPS, don’t just apply to new buildings. They require that the energy performance of both existing and newly constructed commercial and multifamily buildings, 50,000 square feet and greater,be improved — or face the possibility of large fines or even closure.
St. Louis’ trailblazing efforts in energy efficiency may be surprising to the general public, but those in the field, like Emily Andrews, executive director of the Missouri Gateway Green Building Council and a major player in setting the city’s BEPS, trace the efforts back to 2017, the year St. Louis won a national grant focusing on energy efficiency in large buildings. The City Energy Projectawarded the city technical support and funding for energy-efficiency benchmarking and improvements.
One year later, in 2018, St. Louis was a winner in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge, a national initiative aimed at tackling climate change and a sustainable future. As a winning city, St. Louis was provided two years of in-person and technical assistance in areas that include leveraging of energy usage, developing a comprehensive solar action strategy and implementing an electric vehicle infrastructure plan.
Also in 2018, St. Louis adopted a new suite of building codes provided by theInternational Code Council (ICC). The codes — a major upgrade from the 2009 ones previously in use — significantly upgraded energy-efficiency requirements for new buildings, as well as major renovations of old ones. As with the BEPS, St. Louis was the first municipality in the region — and one of the first nationwide — to adopt the new codes.
Andrews says St. Louis has always been an “early adopter” of progressive energy-saving practices. Mostly, she says, because so many prominent firms in the region actually practice what they preach.
“We have some really strong architectural, engineering and contracting firms here working all over the country and, in some cases, all over the world, implementing these practices. So, it makes sense that the city would want to do these things.”
Erik Biggs, president of the American Institute of Architects-Missouri, is hyped about new standards.
“It’s part of AIA’s mission statement, it’s part of our practice as architects to be aware of sustainable methods,” Biggs says. “We have a standard of practice that includes sustainable methods. It’s something ingrained that we take very seriously, just like safety and social equities. It’s something we try to be conscious of on a day-to-day basis.”
The Gateway Green Council worked to convene stakeholders from St. Louis City Hall, the commercial building sector, architecture and engineering firms, affordable housing and other groups, which led to a building energy improvement board. This group outlined policies centered around benchmarking ordinances and presented them to local and state lawmakers.
Largely based on their work, in 2020, the St.Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously passed, and Mayor Lyda Krewson signed into law, St.Louis' first Building Energy Performance Standards, mandating significant reductions in building energy use. They require buildings that do not meet performance targets to invest in energy-efficiency improvements in order to drive down energy use and emissions.
Struggling to Find Capital
Kingsway Development is the lead driver of the $150 million Kingsway District project on the north side of Delmar Boulevard in the Fountain Park neighborhood.It includes a 100-room, boutique-type hotel; a 200-space parking garage; renovation of a 750-seat theatre and transforming a vacant factory into an office and business center and the development of the Delmar/Taylor Apartment complex.
Kevin Bryant, founder and president of Kingsway Development, serves on the board of BE-Ex STL. He was recruited by 8th Ward Alderwoman Spencer, who used to have Rein’s job.
“She asked me to join to represent developers building north of Delmar, who are often neglected or left out of these levels of conversations,” Bryant confesses.
Bryant defines himself as “pro-energy improvement.” But while Bryant says he’s all for the city enforcing its new building standards, that’s only if resources are made available to offset the cost.
Bryant doesn’t think the new BEPS policies will necessarily hurt small or minority developers or building owners.Most won’t be impacted by standards related to buildings that are 50,000 square feet or greater.
Bryant does, however, have concerns about requirements to upgrade or add new energy-saving measures to existing buildings.
“Finding the funding to improve your building; that’s what stings and not just for minority developers, but for all of us,” he says. “It just hurts Black developers and Black building owners more because we have less access to capital. Most Black developers north of Delmar, including myself, and in other cities…we’re struggling to find capital.
“So, when there’s an ordinance or something that says now you must improve your circuit breakers or add solar outlets or upgrade your water supply …. if we can’t go to the bank and readily pull-down the money to offset those costs, it just hurts. That’s where the city or federal government needs to step in and help identify resources for all of us.”
Homeowners, builders and nonprofits can work with the Building Division to determine alternative compliance methods, Michalova says, and BE-Ex STL was specifically established as a clearinghouse, offering support to homebuilders and homeowners about incentive programs, other resources and even technology to reduce energy consumption.
“The path to get there can be a challenge,” Rein explains. “But that’s the reason why the Building Energy Exchange and other high-performance building hubs popping up around the country exist. Our goal is to help people navigate those hurdles and help folks that need extra support — especially those who’ve been marginalized — meet these goals.”
Government support is also available. The federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022offers funding, programs and incentives aimed at accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy.
For example, the Clean Electricity Investment tax credit provision applies to all generation facilities (and energy storage systems) that have an anticipated greenhouse gas emissions rate of zero. Residential home builders are eligible for tax credits if their projects meet ENERGY STAR program requirements. Commercial building owners who increase their energy efficiency by at least 25 percent will also be able to claim deductions.
Homeowners can claim up to $3,200 annually through new federal income tax credits to offset the cost of energy-efficient home upgrades. In addition, homeowners can also take advantage of the extended Residential Clean Energy credit, which provides a 30 percent income tax credit for clean energy equipment, such as rooftop solar, wind energy and geothermal heat pumps.
Bryant isn’t particularly impressed. The “average person,” he says, may not have the wherewithal to capitalize on these incentives.
“For instance, $3,200 may sound like a lot until you unpack the qualification requirements. The credit is generally limited to 30 percent of qualified expenditures made on property,” he says. “True energy improvements of an old house can easily surpass $10,000, and that depends on whether you’re doing more than just one item.”
Still, Bryant insists any kind of government energy assistance is better than none.
“It’s a good start, but not enough to motivate anyone who is already struggling with finances.”
Rein, with Be-Ex STL, concedes that moving everyone, in every income bracket, to compliance will be challenging. However, he remains hopeful that a combination of public and private incentives and determination by stakeholders will help everyone meet the city’s goals.
“Part of the mission of every group involved is to work together to find and use the tools and methods at our disposal to bridge gaps so that we can get everyone to the table and see everyone reap the rewards,” Rein says.
But an even bigger problem for the city’s ambitions might be a familiar foe — the state of Missouri.