Leading by example: companies create a greener city

For the past year or so, city officials across North America held their breath, wondering where Seattle-based Amazon would put its HQ2 — a second headquarters expected to cost $5 billion to build and eventually employ up to 50,000 high-paid workers.

Cincinnati tossed its hat into the ring for that mega-project but found out earlier this fall that it did not make the e-commerce giant’s list of 20 finalists. (Then, last month, Amazon ended the suspense and announced that HQ2 would be split between two locales: Long Island City in the New York City borough of Queens, and the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.)

Amazon’s snub to this city’s tech sector notwithstanding, the Cincinnati metro area’s business community has shown some serious strength in another noteworthy arena: that of going green. For example, for the second year in a row, the Queen City and its surrounding counties have taken the top slot in Site Selection magazine’s “Sustainability Rankings.”

That ranking is based on such factors as the number of buildings with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certification in the market, the variety of industry sectors aligned with cleantech, and local eco-friendly building initiatives.

Site Selection noted that this region’s initiatives in the latter category include the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, which is a roadmap to guide the city’s transition to a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient future, and Procter & Gamble’s “Ambition 2030” plan, which the corporate giant describes as its blueprint for “enabling and inspiring positive impact on the environment and society while creating value for the company and consumers.”

As for LEED certified buildings, you need look no further than the tallest addition to the city’s skyline over the past decade to find a structure with some serious green cred.

Helping the seven-year-old Great American Tower at Queen City Square achieve LEED Gold certification are such sustainable features as a substantial use of recycled materials in its construction and the installation of energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. (For more on the tower and its unique design, see “Additions and updates to Cincinnati’s skyline.”)

This story is the final installment in Soapbox Cincinnati’s 10-year anniversary series, and serves as an update to a Dec. 2, 2008 story titled “How green jobs are taking root in Cincinnati.” In that article, writer Feoshia Henderson noted that “locally, an opportunity area exists to lead national and global [green] initiatives that would create thousands of good-paying jobs across Greater Cincinnati, while simultaneously reviving the region’s entrepreneurial spirit.”

But these are different days for green energy.

A decade ago, Henderson noted that then-newly elected President Barack Obama was an ardent booster of solar, wind and geothermal power. Today, however, Donald Trump’s administration has advocated for a return to more reliance on coal and fossil fuels.

In addition, the commercial recycling market — long notorious for its ups and downs — is currently in a swoon, thanks mainly to declining demand for such items by China, a major user of those commodities.

Despite such difficulties, the outlook for green jobs is still (mostly) promising, according to an article appearing earlier this year by Greenbiz.com, which noted that 3.2 million Americans are currently employed in so-called clean energy sector, more than two times as many as are employed in fossil fuels.

Still, specific numbers of local green jobs are hard to come by. The Bureau of Labor Market Information at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services does not track such occupations, and no jobs along those lines were mentioned in a study of the projected fastest-growing occupations during 2014–2024 in the Cincinnati metro region that was published last year by the bureau. However, department spokesperson Bret Crow notes that several online job sites offer a bumper crop of local openings in that sector, such as O*NET OnLine.

Meantime, anecdotal evidence of the Cincinnati area’s strength in the green-job sector abounds.

The new headquarters will have a super-hybrid geothermal HVAC system.

Last month, for example, Melink Corp. — a Milford-based provider of energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions for such high-profile clients as Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Walmart — broke ground on its own HQ2 adjacent to its existing home. Slated for completion next year, that 30,000-square-foot building will be even more energy-efficient than its identically sized predecessor, which is LEED Platinum Certified and a Zero Energy Building (ZEB) — that is, one that produces as much energy as it uses in the course of a year.

“In addition to serving our future workplace needs, HQ2 will serve as a model for ZEB best practices for architects, engineers, and contractors,” says company founder Steve Melink. “The goal will be to show a cost-benefit analysis that will make other building owners want to emulate and mainstream ZEBs.”

Melink notes that a growing segment of the building industry is calling for all new construction projects to be ZEBs by 2030.

“We want to show that this can be easily achieved, 10 years ahead of schedule, with a relatively simple design strategy,” he says. “Since the largest energy loads in most commercial buildings are lighting, HVAC, and hot water, we will focus on showing how these can be minimized — and offset by a slightly greater amount of solar PV electric generation. Nothing new, except HQ2 will do this better than HQ1.”

“But the main innovation,” he continues, “will be around our super-hybrid geothermal HVAC system … This new system will help advance the energy savings of geothermal without the high cost normally associated with it.”

Anyone wanting to work in his company’s new HQ2 should have or get an electric car, as only that type of sustainable vehicle will be allowed in its parking lot, Melink adds. (The company’s own car fleet is all-electric, and Melink’s existing workers are encouraged to drive such vehicles as well.)

OK, in the greater scheme of things, the company’s HQ2 plans are on a decidedly smaller scale than those of Amazon. But it’s still a noteworthy step along the Cincinnati area’s ongoing journey toward becoming the queen (city) of green.

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Read more articles by Matthew Hall.

Matthew Hall is a Mount Lookout-based freelance writer/editor specializing in covering architectural and design trends. His career includes stints with the Cincinnati Business Courier, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Fatbrain.com (an online bookseller) and Boutique Design magazine. He's also happy to be a later-in-life dad who adopted two children from Guatemala with his wife.