Today’s Building Energy Use Tracking and Disclosure Challenges Will Provide Better Tools and Reporting Consistency in the Future

energy benchmarking

Energy use in modern buildings is staggering. Each year in America we spend close to $450 billion dollars on energy consumed in buildings. However, 13 cities, one county and two states have taken a stand against exorbitant energy use by mandating commercial building owners and facility managers track and report usage. Although these areas of the country are making meaningful strides to reduce energy use, they also are discovering challenges with tools and reporting consistency. However, these challenges should be looked upon as opportunities to provide better benchmarking tools and training. Ultimately, this will lead more buildings in more parts of the country toward energy efficiency.

The Beginnings

Mandatory energy disclosure and benchmarking began in California. In 2007, the state passed AB 1103 legislation requiring energy disclosure in real-estate transactions involving a commercial building sale or a whole building lease. Several delays kept the legislation from going into effect until 2014.

One of the major delays with implementing the legislation was simply that the utility providers did not have a suitable method to share energy-consumption data for this type of use. The entire notion of energy disclosure was vague and not well defined. If someone turns over a filing cabinet full of utility bills, does that meet the intent of the law? Standardization and definition were desperately needed for all stakeholders and, consequently, delayed the implementation of AB 1103 until these issues could be addressed. In 2011, during the same time California was wrestling with these issues, ASTM International, West Conshohocken, Pa., formed a committee to develop a standard for commercial-building energy disclosure in a format that could be used universally. The end product was the ASTM E2797 Building Energy Performance Assessment (BEPA). Although traction initially was slow, BEPA is becoming a more widely recognized reporting format for building owners to disclose energy use and ensure compliance with applicable laws. Energy disclosure helps a potential building owner become aware of the energy-use characteristics of a particular property. However, it has limitations for tracking long-term energy use and benchmarking. For that, we need to look to ENERGY STAR.

Comparison

Comparing energy use among buildings isn’t a new idea. ENERGY STAR first introduced its building-certification rating almost 16 years ago, and its Portfolio Manager is a widely used free tool to help building owners track energy use, compare buildings against peers and achieve ENERGY STAR Certification.

However, Portfolio Manager is not without its issues. It would seem logical that as more buildings get entered into the database, there would be more buildings to compare against. This is not the case. Citing privacy reasons, any building that is entered into Portfolio Manager will not be benchmarked against others in the database but only against buildings in a comparison index. The comparison index used by Portfolio Manager is the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey, or CBECS, which, in some instances, only contains building data as recent as the late 1990s. Comparing a 2015 building’s data against old data isn’t exactly a fair comparison. There is talk of updating the ENERGY STAR data to the 2012 CBECS data but this has not happened to date. Portfolio Manager has potential to be a very robust and relevant tool if only it were able to anonymously use all data that have been entered by users into the database.

Although most of the areas that require benchmarking only ask for public disclosure of energy-consumption information, New York City’s Greener, Greater Buildings Plan requires ongoing energy auditing and recommissioning of building systems. Think of the recomissioning process as a tune up for your building where all of the building’s energy-consuming systems are brought back into operation the way their designers intended.

Chicago has taken a slightly different path with its energy-benchmarking ordinance, which passed in September 2013 and has no mandates for energy reduction. “The policy’s goals are to raise awareness of energy performance, help building owners save operational dollars, create local jobs, protect the health of its citizens [by reducing emissions from power plants] and promote
the city of Chicago as one the greenest cities on the planet,” remarks Katie Kaluzny, associate director of the U.S. Green Building Council Illinois Chapter.

As the Chicago ordinance was being planned, several trade organizations came together to educate the public about the ordinance and promote energy efficiency. What started out as a collaboration between USGBC Illinois, ASHRAE Illinois, and AIA Chicago has morphed and grown into a larger network of stakeholders now known as the Chicago Energy Benchmarking Workgroup. This workgroup is leading the charge to make sure building owners have the education and resources they need to comply with the law.

Growing Pains

One of the issues widely reported with energy benchmarking programs across the nation is data verification and quality. For building owners who have not analyzed utility bills before, entering data accurately can be tricky.

For example, according to an Energy Manager Today column, New York City normalized nearly 25 percent of property submissions in its first year of private-sector benchmarking because of “inaccuracies due to unintentional errors, difficulty of obtaining correct information, and a general lack of familiarity with the Portfolio Manager tool.” Consequently, the Center for Building Knowledge at New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, with the Consortium for Building Energy Innovation, Philadelphia, established the Certificate of Proficiency in Benchmarking, an online tool that helps building-industry professionals learn how to collect energy- and water-use information and successfully benchmark most building types.

“In the real world, there are subtle differences between elderly assisted multifamily facilities and nursing homes,” Kaluzny states. “However, when comparing these facilities in the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, there are big differences.” Building systems in elderly multifamily buildings have a tendency to be more residential in nature while nursing homes tend to have larger, complex heating and cooling systems with a completely different energy-use characteristic.

To combat this issue in Chicago, the Chicago Energy Benchmarking Workgroup has developed training presentations and offers resources and guidance to help building owners through the benchmarking process. Because compliance with the Chicago Energy Benchmarking ordinance is phased, only the largest buildings—non-residential buildings larger than 250,000 square feet—have so far been required to report energy use (about 300 buildings within the city of Chicago). “What we found was that many of these buildings were currently or had in the past been tracking energy use in Portfolio Manager and had a working familiarity with the program,”

Kaluzny notes. “However, in 2015, residential buildings larger than 250,000 square feet and non-residential buildings larger than 50,000 square feet are required to start reporting. This opens up the program to a lot more users that may not have experience with the tools.” Kaluzny adds 1 percent of the buildings in a typical city consume 20 percent of the city’s energy use. “Think of the impact you could have reducing that number to something more manageable,” she says.

By most early accounts, building owners are taking note and complying with the laws. New York City, which has required buildings greater than 50,000 square feet to report energy usage since 2011, has reported close to an 84 percent compliance rate with its energy-benchmarking mandate. Chicago, which is still phasing in its ordinance, has seen compliance with non-residential buildings larger than 250,000 square feet close to 95 percent. In general, with all other things equal, energy efficient buildings will become more desirable in the marketplace. Time will tell if benchmarking ordinances help prove this theory.

About the Author

Nathan M. Gillette
Nathan M. Gillette, AIA, LEED AP O+M, CEM, is director of Natura Architectural Consulting, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a retrofit editorial advisor. He works with clients to successfully implement and manage energy efficiency and sustainability projects.

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