DENVER, Colo. -- As the Rocky Mountain region experienced scorching, record-breaking temperatures in late June, and as fires engulfed significant swaths of Colorado, energy policy experts convened in Denver to discuss ways to mitigate harmful greenhouse gas emissions by the nation’s buildings. With climate scientists positing links between the temperature extremes and CO2 emissions, the recent events cast a suggestive backdrop to the gathering.
The U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored conference, called the Better Buildings Summit for State and Local Communities, brought together close to 300 participants June 26-27 to share strategies to make buildings – whether commercial, multi-family residential or public-sector properties – more environmentally-responsible and energy-efficient.
Sessions on building and expanding efficiency policies featured success stories from California, Massachusetts, New York, Texas, Virginia and the District of Columbia and encouraged other states and municipalities to pursue benchmarking and similar policies in their own jurisdictions.
The problems and costs related to inefficient buildings are not insignificant. In Arlington County, Va., New York City, Washington and other cities, for example, panelists revealed that up to three-quarters of their total greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that buildings use $200 billion in energy each year, representing a significant portion of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. Consideration of a building’s energy efficiency means looking at a number of its features. Among them are “hard, physical” assets such as a building’s lighting, shading and ventilation to “softer” elements like its occupancy and operational choices.
There are a number of paths a municipality or state can go down to tackle inefficiencies, from soliciting voluntary disclosures to requiring it with legislation, as well as labeling and auditing initiatives and coordinated incentives and competitions to spur action. In fact, there already exist a number of organizations and tools to help evaluate building energy consumption. The free, online Energy Star Portfolio Manager, for example, allows building owners and managers to track building energy and water use. A tool that builds on Portfolio Manager, called the Standard Energy Efficiency Data (SEED) Platform, allows extraction of a city’s data into a database which may be easily shared with others.
The State and Local Energy Efficiency Action Network (SEE Action), a partnership between the DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency meant to encourage and assist with accomplishing targeted energy-efficiency goals by 2020, has a working group specifically committed to commercial buildings. Another initiative, launched by President Obama in late 2011, encourages large property owners to showcase energy efficiency projects. More than 100 cities, states, school districts and other organizations countrywide have risen to the challenge and have become Better Buildings Challenge Partners.
What can a municipality do to get started? One key, panelists said, is benchmarking, which means measuring how energy-efficient a building is as compared to some kind of baseline. According to the DOE energy policy specialist and conference moderator Cody Taylor, benchmarking is something the department views as an important avenue towards improved energy efficiency. It is also something evidence soundly backs up, he said. Taylor cited two studies during the session titled “Policies to Build Energy Efficiency Across Your Community” indicating that those who adopt some type of benchmarking are “much more likely to actually implement energy efficiency projects to improve the efficiency of buildings.”
Disclosure is a key follow-up to benchmarking. This means releasing energy use information, often via the Internet or labeling. A number of cities have or are in the process of passing energy use labeling and disclosure policies, with the city of Philadelphia being the latest to join the club. Its city council provided unanimous approval on June 21 of energy benchmarking and disclosure for all large commercial buildings.
Arlington County, Va., has gone beyond benchmarking and disclosure in efforts to reduce energy consumption in its buildings. The county disclosed its buildings’ energy use data after a citizen requested the information, according to county energy manager John Morrill. He recalls the hesitancy to comply, fearing backlash from property managers with “lemon” buildings. Instead, he said, “We started posting data on the web. You know what happened? Nothing! … [I]t has been a total positive.” In fact, Morrill said, even the so-called “lemon” buildings jumped on the disclosure bandwagon, because documenting their inefficiencies made them candidates for funding to improve themselves and to, ultimately, save themselves money.
Arlington County has also employed building labeling, a move other panelists discussed as well. We have become accustomed to seeing nutritional labels on food and energy use labels on household appliances. Buildings, they reasoned, should do the same. In a more lighthearted effort, Arlington County recently launched “Green Games,” which united over 170 commercial property owners, managers and tenants in a competition to encourage building emission reduction and cost savings.
Like Arlington County, New York City has taken energy-efficiency in its buildings seriously. Who can blame them? The city boasts a whopping one million buildings, said Laurie Kerr, a senior policy advisor in the city’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability. Shockingly, Kerr revealed, the largest 16,000 of the city’s buildings account for almost half of its overall emissions. With that and the fact that the city is outgrowing its infrastructure and is slated to grow by more than 1 million more people by 2030 the city launched PlaNYC in 2007. The effort is taking on 10 sustainability goals it intends to meet by 2030.
One key component of PlaNYC is its “Greener, Greater Buildings Plan,” which consists of benchmarking regulations for the city’s buildings as well as requirements for auditing, retrocommissioning, lighting and submetering slated to launch soon. “There’s a lot of fat there that can be easily cut,” Kerr reports. “What we’re doing is really requiring people to save money in their buildings.”
Kerr’s sentiment was echoed by other panelists, who returned to the notion that energy-efficient buildings offer an environmentally-friendly, cost-effective win-win to municipalities, especially those with a number of large, energy guzzling commercial properties. “Knowing how a building performs is really a baseline requirement for responsible property ownership,” said Barry Hooper, who works with the San Francisco Department of Environment’s Green Building Program and presented at the conference’s “Policies to Build Energy Efficiency Across Your Community” session. “A pretty conservative analysis indicates that this effort is not just cost effective for the local government but also cost effective for the private sector as a whole.”
Participants said they believe the writing is on the wall, that energy-saving measures pose a no-brainer choice to cities and states looking toward their future. “We’re going to have a future where, if you want to advertise that you have Class A office space, you have to be a top energy performer,” said Marshall Duer-Balkind, a program analyst with the Washington, D.C. Department of the Environment. “I think that’s the future.”
“We see all of these pieces together – benchmarking, auditing, submetering etc., - as a beginning of a real knowledge revolution in energy use,” said New York City’s Kerr. “This stuff has been opaque, fragmented, impossible to see and impossible to manage and I think that we’re just starting to see that transform and I think it’s going to transform very quickly in the next two, three, four years.”