Expert Voices: Karen Weigert – Chief Sustainability Officer, City of Chicago

On June 5, fourteen gorgeous Chicago buildings became founding participants in Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Buildings Initiative, a voluntary program to accelerate energy efficiency in large commercial spaces across the city.  In a public announcement and press conference on the initiative, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu recognized the growing momentum of energy efficiency in Chicago’s buildings.  The program is a solid fit with Chicago’s rich architectural heritage and ambitious plans for the future – in the 19th century, Chicago built the world’s first modern skyscraper; in the 20thcentury, we created a world-renown skyline; today, Chicago aspires to make that skyline the most efficient on the planet.

Chicago Mayor Emanuel and US Secretary of Energy Chu (second and third from left, respectively) survey the Wrigley Building, one of the initial participant buildings of Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Buildings Initiative. Photo credit: Brooke Collins

The Commercial Buildings Initiative’s initial participants span 14 million square feet of commercial office and hospitality space, ranging from 7 to 117 years old.  The buildings represent a diverse range of architectural styles, including art deco, gothic, French renaissance, and our own Chicago School.  Initiative participants are greening Chicago’s built environment by working to reduce energy usage by at least 20% in the next five years, sharing progress and efficiency successes with the public, and serving as ambassadors to other buildings that are interested in increasing their energy efficiency.  They exemplify our private sector’s commitment to cutting operating expenses, creating jobs, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through smart energy use.

This private sector initiative complements Retrofit Chicago’s energy efficiency efforts across city-owned buildings and other municipal assets.  These efforts will be brought before the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a new innovative effort to finance transformative infrastructure projects.  Municipal efficiency efforts will save over $20 million USD per year in energy costs, while creating more than 1,000 jobs.  As Mayor Emanuel says, “Increasing sustainability throughout Chicago can create dramatic economic opportunity throughout our neighborhoods and improve the overall quality of life for residents.”

Together, private and municipal efforts comprise Chicago’s commitment to the US Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, a national leadership initiative that calls on state and local officials, business executives, and community leaders to achieve tangible progress in efficiency improvement. At the time of joining the Better Buildings Challenge, Chicago pledged to achieve a 20% reduction in energy use intensity across 24 million square feet of public and private space within 5 years.

The city’s efforts to accelerate energy efficiency are part of a $7 billion USD, 3-year public infrastructure revitalization – “Building a New Chicago” – that is helping to make Chicago one of the most competitive, livable, and sustainable cities of the 21st century.  Building a New Chicago will touch many aspects of the city’s infrastructure, including transportation, water, schools, airports, and buildings, creating more than 30,000 jobs over the next three years.

Complementing Chicago’s longstanding partnerships with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Clinton Climate Initiative, our buildings efficiency activities benefit from close collaboration with the Building Owners & Managers Association of Chicago, Civic Consulting Alliance, ComEd, The Joyce Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Peoples Gas, among a growing field of supporters and technical advisors.

Chicago also looks beyond our borders for inspiration and knowledge-sharing.  Our participation in the C40 is providing ideas and information from similar retrofit programs in member cities around the world.  Chicago is proud to chair the C40’s new Sustainable Infrastructure Finance Network, which will create opportunities to share our experience and to learn from other great cities’ infrastructure financing efforts.

Together, cities will help each other to tackle the infrastructure challenges ahead in ways that deliver positive economic and environmental outcomes.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) is a network of large and engaged cities from around the world committed to implementing meaningful and sustainable climate-related actions locally that will help address climate change globally. Recognizing that cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions, our organization’s global field staff works with city governments, supported by our technical experts across a range of program areas to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency in large cities across the world. The current chair of the C40 is Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, and 108th Mayor of New York City Michael R. Bloomberg is President of the Board. The Steering Committee includes: Berlin, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Houston, Jakarta, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul and Tokyo.