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Milwaukee Shines in Retrofitting Buildings to Become Energy Efficient

The U.S. Department of Energy applauded Milwaukee recently for its energy-saving initiatives.
The City is among 130 partners – ranging from municipal to commercial to industrial – that signed on to reduce their “energy intensity” by 20 percent by the year 2020.

The Central Library on Wisconsin Avenue is a showcase “retrofit” project for the City, including its 30,000 square foot green rooftop resplendent with native grasses and sedum.

DOE's Better Buildings Challenge Director Maria Vargas says when President Obama launched the challenge, it represented a chance for her and her agency to make tangible environmental strides.

“Having worked on energy efficiency for nearly three decades, I came to the table understanding a lot about what drives greater efficiency, but also and importantly, what stood in the way of organizations pursuing greater efficiency," Vargas says.

This ought to be an easy sell explains Vargas. It takes $200 billion dollars to power the nation’s commercial buildings and an equal amount to power industrial facilities. About 20 percent of that energy is wasted. She would like to attack that waste through energy efficiency measures.

“The estimates are that we can save up to $80 billion a year as a country, create great jobs and put money that was being spent on energy bills back to work in our communities and our businesses." Vargas acknowledges the program does ask a lot of its partners. Partners have to commit to more than cutting greenhouse gas emissions, they have to share their progress and the challenges they face with others.

Reducing Energy Waste at the Milwaukee Public Library

Credit Milwaukee Public Library
The dome on top of Milwaukee's Central Library is lit by LED lights.

The Milwaukee Public Library is old - "a 130 year old building that people hope will be around for another 130 or 230 years," Taj Schoening, MPL's business operations manager, says.  Schoening think it's neat that the City installed a green roof on the library to drive energy savings, and to also have money to spend elsewhere - now that it is not being used on wasted energy.

"The library has always had a philosophy of trying to improve energy conservation and reduce consumption, and as technology changed we've incorporated that," Schoening explains. At the library, that meant changing lots and lots of light bulbs – out with the incandescents and in with LEDs. 

"Between 2005 and 2009, Central Library had already reduced its energy consumption by 23 percent," Duane Wepking shares. His job is  managing the massive HVAC – heating ventilation and air conditioning – system.

The library is among 450 downtown buildings that draw steam heat from We Energies’ Valley Power Plant. Wepking says that power source was a major upgrade at the time.

"You have to understand there's 10 acres of building here.  The original building was built in the 1890s.  It was coal and fireplaces.  So when steam came about that was one step of modernization.  And then since then we're using more sophisticated air handlers that can modulate to demand.  So there's been an evolution of the heating plant for Central Library over the years."

This insulation is quite old down in the library's "stream service";  Wepking feels that big improvements can be made by re-insulating the condensate pipes and stream traps.

Efficiency at the Wells Building

Credit Eric Nordeen
New owners of the Wells Building are banking on energy efficient updates and extensive renovations to help draw tenants to the historic space.

Two years ago, Eric Nordeen knew nothing of tending to an old building – until he bought one - the Wells Building on East Wisconsin Avenue.

“It's a half empty historic office building with all this great architectural detail, but it also had a lot of failing systems in the building - HVAC, plumbing, electrical, those kinds of things - that are sort of hidden behind the walls.  We wanted to create an aesthetic for the building and make it marketable and leasable but we knew we had to spend a lot of money on this behind-the-scenes stuff."

Its basement holds remnants of a Western Union office – one of many historical elements that captures Nordeen’s imagination. But, it’s Nordeen’s new heating and cooling system that will bring the Wells back to life – saving 17 million gallons of water a year in the process.

Retrofitting the Milwaukee Athletic Club

Credit Vincent Desjardins, Flickr
The Milwaukee Athletic Club is just finishing off updating their HVAC system.

Just a few blocks away, Adam Sauter of Johnson Controls is orchestrating the retrofit of another architectural antique – the Milwaukee Athletic Club. That included updating 60 individual hotel rooms where guests would often run the air conditioning mid-winter because the steam heat blasted uncontrollably.

Sauter compares projects like these to open heart surgery. "Because we’re coming into a building that's fully functional.  We have hotel rooms, a fitness center, we have a restaurant and meeting rooms and we come in and literally disassemble the mechanics of it.  So it's open heart surgery - the heating, the cooling we're disrupting all of those mechanical entities while they're in operation and we have to do it without interrupting their flow and their clients."

Erick Shambarger, with Milwaukee’s environmental sustainability office, says the City comes into the picture financially and with a pre-approved list of contractors through its Me2 program. The financial formula has evolved. When Me2 started, the City plugged in federal stimulus funds. That’s been replaced by a unique funding mechanism.

"It's called Property Assessed Clean Energy Financing.  It's a public private partnership where we've got up to $100 million  of private capital for energy efficient building improvements to existing buildings.  And it's unique because the property owner repays it as a voluntary municipal special charge on their property tax bill, it extends the loan terms out to up to 20 years and it has a whole lot of other advantages to the building owner."

Shambarger says local workers also benefit in the process – thanks to “RPP” – that stands for Residence Preference Program. “The thinking is, the City is going to put a program together to help building owners, we want to make sure some of the job creation that comes out of that goes to people who live in the city and really need jobs right now."

That suits Kevin Mamerow and Eddie Hughes just fine. They work for a local company contracted to do electrical work on the Milwaukee Athletic Club project.

Before this job came along,  Mamerow was out of work for months. As for Eddie Hughes, he’s stunned. This is his first day and the last thing he imagined was having a microphone shoved in his face.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.