How Can a LEED-Certified Building Use So Much Energy?

When it opened in 2010, the Bank of America Tower was called one of the world’s “most environmentally responsible high-rise office buildings,” and it earned the praise of Al Gore and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The building also received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification, the first time a skyscraper had earned this distinction.

As it turns out, the Bank of America Tower is not quite as green as everyone thought. Data released by the city last fall reveals that the building produces more greenhouse gases and uses more energy per square foot than any other office building in Manhattan of the same size.

The fact that a LEED Platinum certified building can use so much energy raises a lot of questions. How can a building become LEED certified if it uses more energy than almost any other comparably-sized building in the city? Is LEED really a good indicator of energy-efficiency and sustainability?

Unveiled in 1998 by the US Green Building Council, the LEED system has now certified nearly 50,000 buildings worldwide, based on dozens of factors, including buildings materials, water conservation, and energy-efficiency. Being LEED-certified not only brings buildings and companies good PR, it can also make them eligible for tax rebates.

LEED has always had its critics. As they point out—and as the Bank of America Tower case indicates—LEED often ignores what goes on inside of buildings, and instead emphasizes standards that have little to do with energy-efficiency. The Bank of America Tower, for example, earned LEED points for being located near public transportation, and for protecting habitat in Bryant Park. Other buildings have received LEED points for displaying educational posters about sustainability.

Meanwhile, the energy use of the Bank of America Tower’s tenants goes virtually unchecked. Nearly a third of the building’s space is occupied by trading floors, which contain hundreds of computers and servers that consume massive amounts of energy.

While the LEED system certainly has value, and has been a useful tool in ushering in a new generation of energy efficiency, it fails to consider the energy use of its tenants. Moving forward, this part of the equation will become monumentally important in assessing energy efficiency.