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Office of Sustainability Launches Detroit Energy Challenge to Prompt Energy Efficiency

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Image credit: Photo by Doug Zuba on Unsplash

Detroit Energy Challenge is a way to reduce emissions and raise awareness around energy usage over the next year.

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There’s a new incentive to improve the energy efficiency of commercial and city structures.

Detroit’s Office of Sustainability recently launched the Detroit Energy Challenge as a way to reduce emissions and raise awareness around energy usage over the next year.

This challenge is in partnership with the existing Detroit 2030 District and Michigan Battle of the Buildings initiatives. 

According to Joel Howrani Heeres, Director of the Office of Sustainability for the City of Detroit, the new Detroit Energy Challenge was a way that the Office of Sustainability could really “put more oomph behind it and… encourage building owners in the city to participate in this awesome effort.”  

Heeres joined WDET to discuss the new challenge and what the Office of Sustainability already knows about building emissions in the city. 


Listen: Joel Howrani Heeres discusses the Detroit Energy Challenge and what data exists regarding building emissions in the city.


Where Are Detroit’s Emissions Coming From?

According to Joel Howrani Heeres, the last greenhouse gas assessment in 2014 revealed that more than 60 percent of overall city emissions are from buildings, and “over 50 percent of those building emissions are from commercial and institutional buildings which are larger buildings that tend to be downtown,” says Heeres.

A New Challenge In Town

Heeres says the newly unveiled Detroit Energy Challenge is highlighting building emissions as “an opportunity area for people to reduce their energy usage and save money on their utility bills.” 

The goal of the project is to preserve Detroit’s historic building stock, but also to bring awareness to the current inefficiency issues by providing building owners and managers a chance to access resources that will help them make environmentally and financially sound choices about updating their structures. 


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How to Make Buildings More Energy Efficient

Heeres says there are a few different ways to help buildings waste less energy:

  • Retrofitting: According to Energy.gov, retrofitting ”involves modifications to existing commercial buildings that may improve energy efficiency or decrease energy demand.” Heeres explains that before any retrofitting can occur, there needs to be an analysis of the “building envelope and insulation.” Heeres says windows are a common part of the building envelope that can be improved in old buildings. ”If you have energy leaking out of your building, then obviously you’re not going to have a very efficient cooling or heating system, so typically they start by doing an energy audit and looking at what are the opportunities and frequently the building envelope is what they look at. So windows [and] window replacement are a real opportunity,” says Heeres.
  • Evaluating HVAC systems: According to Heeres, ”previously, [building managers and owners] would put three or four large systems in a building and essentially run them constantly, but the new systems are in stages so you only fire the boilers or the chillers that you need for whatever the demand is on that day, so you’re not always firing everything all the time or not at all.” This gives building operators a chance at more precision and less energy waste.

  • Looking at building management systems: Heeres says that includes things like submetering and temperature controls in different areas of the building—he notes that “really a lot of this work can be automated.” 


What’s submetering?” According to the US General Services Administration: “Submetering is an important tool for reducing energy in buildings; it provides information at a local level, enabling building occupants and tenant agencies to identify energy-intense systems and adjust their behaviors to achieve energy performance goals.” Heeres uses the example: “If you have… one meter for a giant building, you wouldn’t know that the 14th floor is using more energy than the 10th floor… if you didn’t submeter.”


Where Do Greenhouse Gas Emissions Come From in a Building?

Heeres says the answer at the building operations level are things like “a gas boiler or fuel oil,” although he notes that the use of fuel oil is a much more common practice in New York City than in Detroit. Heeres also points to the power plant where coal is burned and natural gas is used, “so any light we turn on in a building or any electric device we use to power our buildings are creating emissions at our power plants.” 

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Annamarie Sysling, Environmental Reporter and Producer, Detroit Today

Annamarie Sysling is a producer for “Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson.” When she’s not at work, Sysling is likely walking or biking somewhere in the city, listening to a neuroscience podcast or eating ice cream.

annamarie.sysling@wdet.org Follow @asysling

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