Major projects initiated by former President Bill Clinton and CB Richard Ellis Group Inc. should propel efforts to retrofit millions of square feet of existing commercial and government buildings with “green” technology. But experts note that multi-tenant buildings may be laggards in this green wave.

Clinton’s new Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program, part of the Clinton Climate Initiative launched last year by the nonprofit William J. Clinton Foundation, will provide city governments and private building owners with loans to retrofit buildings with energy-efficient technology, such as upgraded lighting, heating and cooling systems. Energy savings will amount to 20% to 50%, organizers say.

ABN AMRO, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase and UBS will put up the $5 billion for the retrofits. Cities and building owners will repay the loans, plus interest, with energy savings generated by the retrofits.

Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Inc, Siemens and Trane will conduct energy audits, perform building retrofits, and guarantee the energy savings of the retrofit projects. Building owners will be able to pay back the retrofit loans with interest from the energy savings.

Under the Clinton project, 15 cities have agreed to develop programs to make their municipal buildings more energy efficient and provide incentives for owners of commercial buildings to install energy-saving technology. Among the 15 cities where municipal buildings will be retrofitted in the first phase of the project are three U.S. cities: Chicago, Houston and New York. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the city is setting aside about $80 million a year to retrofit city buildings.

Another new player in the retrofit movement is Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis, the world’s largest commercial real estate services company. The company says it will help clients carry out energy-efficiency programs at the 1.7 billion sq. ft. of space it manages around the world. That will include development of energy-efficiency policies, educational programs and business practices.

Even with the Clinton and CB Richard Ellis programs, tens of millions of additional square footage in the United States will remain to be retrofitted with green technology. So far, only about 100 existing buildings have earned LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, with another 400 or so existing buildings awaiting certification.

“We’re getting good traction now, but it’s been a slow start,” says Michelle Moore, the council’s vice president of communications and community. Experts say the slow progress stems primarily from the intense spotlight on green building for new projects, rather than existing buildings.

Jorge Moreno, program manager for the building technologies group at research and consulting company Frost & Sullivan Inc., says both real and perceived budget constraints – such as costs associated with technology upgrades and LEED certification – have hampered the growth of green construction for existing and new buildings. Moreno says the retrofit movement will get a lift once real estate appraisers, lenders and insurers catch on to the added value of greening a building.

Thomas Bisacquino, president of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, says that among existing properties, he expects owner-occupied buildings will adopt green technology faster than multi-tenant spaces. According to Bisacquino, one reason is that owners of multi-tenant buildings tend to be more concerned about up-front retrofitting expenses and resale value than companies that occupy their own buildings.

“I hate to sound so bottom line-oriented, but the business hurdle is cost and the value proposition,” Bisacquino says.

Experts point to the San Jose, Calif. headquarters of software developer Adobe Systems Inc. as a prime example of a successful owner-occupied retrofit.

Over a five-year span, Adobe spent nearly $1.4 million on 64 energy and conservation projects – including an upgrade of lighting and installation of motion sensors and timers – at its nearly 1 million sq. ft., three-building campus, says George Denise of Cushman & Wakefield Inc., which manages Adobe’s facilities. Adobe now achieves annual energy savings of $1.2 million and has received nearly $390 million in utility and government rebates, executives say, with a 37% reduction in power consumption and a 26% reduction in pollution.

Adobe’s return on investment for the retrofit: 121%. The investment payback came in less than 10 months, Denise says. The three buildings at Adobe headquarters are LEED-certified at the platinum level, the highest ranking awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Denise says there’s a misperception that sustainability and energy efficiency for buildings require a huge initial investment. “The perception is wrong,” he says, “and will be proven out as users insist on occupying only environmentally friendly premises.”

However, a new survey indicates this “wrong” perception may linger for a while. More than one-third of 300-plus real estate professionals questioned in March said “green” construction wouldn’t be in their development plans within the following 12 to 18 months, according to Bryan Cave LLP’s Real Estate Executives’ Forecast Survey.

“The fact that the survey reveals such a substantial level of reluctance to embrace green construction is surprising,” says Barry Ross, a partner in Bryan Cave’s real estate group. “Previously viewed as prohibitively expensive by the real estate community, green construction is not universally gaining ground because the true cost-effectiveness of green construction is still a matter of debate.”