A quarter of Boston’s new buildings are not meeting basic standards for clean energy

By Emma Goddard
BU News Service

BOSTON – In 2014, the city of Boston committed to reducing emissions 25 percent by 2020. But an examination of public records shows that at least a quarter of the projects built in the city since then are still not meeting basic standards for clean energy. Moreover, the average “energy star score” for all buildings constructed in Boston since 2014 is below the nation’s standards for being a top performer in clean energy usage.

Sources such as The New York Times, Green Ribbon Commission and the Washington Post have dubbed Boston as the most energy-efficient city in the country, but hardly discuss the building energy usage that is holding the city back from reaching its goals.

In a petition to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the Boston Clean Energy Coalition discussed how “we are not on course to meet the city’s 2020 emissions goals” and asked him to ensure all new construction is “Net-Zero-Carbon” — meaning that it produces as much carbon as it uses.

In addition to reducing its carbon footprint by 2020, the city also committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. But it would require a steep decline in emissions in the next 30 years, according to recent emissions data.

What Boston currently lacks, in my opinion, is the political will to take the necessary, bold, visionary steps… in order for us to actually have any chance of being carbon neutral by 2050,” Rickie Harvey, Co-Founder of Boston Clean Energy Coalition said. “The current administration has a very poor record on implementing the steps to make anything real happen.”

In 2013, Boston enacted “The Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance” (BERDO), to asses energy usage of a building through an energy star score from 1-100. A score of 75 or higher identifies it as a top performer in clean energy usage. In Boston, the average energy score for all buildings constructed since 2014 was below 70.

Some of Boston’s most expensive buildings have the lowest scores reported.

The four-star Envoy Hotel in Seaport, for example, cost an estimated $70 million to build in 2016 — two years after Boston officials set multiple ordinances for building energy use — and it has an energy star score of 47. This means that 53 percent of similar buildings across the country are performing better than the Envoy in terms of clean energy.

Also in Seaport, Millenium Tower, a luxurious, residential skyscraper, has a score of seven, despite its estimated $1 billion net value. In fact, 18 out of 84, or about a quarter of new buildings in Boston, have received a score of less than 75 over the past four years.

The luxury high rises are huge guzzlers of gas for fuel… they are being held to no modern-day standards, and this administration is letting them get away with this,” Harvey said. “Frankly, I do not see this changing under the current administration. I hope I am wrong.”

Buildings account for about two-thirds of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions nearly every year. Boston is in the third-largest building boom of its history, and according to Harvey, “all these new buildings have been fueled by gas.”

In September, City Councilor Matt O’Malley discussed plans to reach a fully carbon-neutral city. He described the road to net zero as not very simple and emphasized how City Council must endeavor to “come up with a series of proposals and initiatives.” With over 20 solar companies in Massachusetts alone — on top of all the other renewable energy companies —the city is ready to make these changes.

According to the 2014 Greenovate Boston Climate Action Plan Update, “many large buildings in Boston are connected to a district energy system which provides efficient, centralized heating and cooling. Expansion of these networks and the creation of new district energy systems can provide a significant improvement in energy efficiency and carbon emissions.”

There are many factors that are accounted for when determining which city in America is the most energy efficient.  For example, in September, The New York Times established the “Greenest Places” in the country by looking at local law and public policy.

Of the five categories given to each city on a points system, Boston gained the most points in the category of “buildings policies.” Many of these sources, such as BERDO and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification have commented on and praised Boston’s many building policies, but looking into the data as a result of these policies shows different results to what one might expect.

My understanding is that most builders and developers just keep doing the same things the same way they always have,” Harvey said. “It is rare that the developer/builder is sustainably minded or cares about their energy usage once the building is constructed and sold — even when they do care, they are often unaware of steps they could be taking to decrease energy usage.”

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