Nationwide Benchmarking
Sep 3, 2013

There’s an energy efficiency trend sweeping across the United States and it may be coming to a municipality near you. This trend is Energy Benchmarking.  Cities across the country, and even a few states, have begun mandating that buildings, serving a variety of purposes, participate in monitoring and reporting their energy use on a yearly basis.  Sounds simple, right?  Unfortunately these mandates don’t come in a one size fits all option, which can make understanding what your locality requires a challenge to decipher.  AUS, though, has experience with these benchmarking laws and can help you stay in compliance while also utilizing the information they collect to your benefit.

So what is Energy Benchmarking and why is my City requiring it?

The gist of energy benchmarking is that it provides a way for buildings to review their patterns in energy consumption for electricity, natural gas, water, etc. and compare that data to other similar buildings.  The goal of these comparisons is to spur buildings to take action to improve their energy efficiency.  And improved energy efficiency makes for a greener planet and a fatter wallet. This data will also provide a starting place for buildings to look at in yearly reviews to determine what progress has or has not been made in their buildings energy management.

So why are governments’ becoming involved?  Well, for many, the concept of energy benchmarking is viewed as a tool to help them reduce their cities carbon footprints and meet legislated emission reductions.  Considering that buildings are responsible for around 75% of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not surprising governments’ are looking to them to help accomplish environmental goals.  Another reason for this involvement includes increasing environmental and utility expense transparency between building owners and tenets, or potential buyers.  Other municipalities are hoping such mandates will spawn economic growth by encouraging buildings to invest in energy efficiency upgrades.

The Character of Current Energy Benchmarking Mandates

Following major U.S. cities have mandated energy benchmarking in some capacity: Following states have adopted some form of energy benchmarking requirements for buildings:
  • Austin, TX
  • Washington D.C.
  • Philadelphia
  • Seattle
  • San Francisco
  • Boston
  • New York City
  • Minneapolis
  • Denver
  • Arlington, VA
  • California
  • Washington
  • Minnesota
  • Michigan
  • Ohio
  • Alabama
  • Hawaii
  • Oklahoma

Benchmarking mandates are consistently applied to either municipal buildings, commercial buildings, or multi-family residential buildings, or some combination of these building types.  Beyond these classifications, however, there’s a wide array of specifications, and these differences go beyond compliance deadlines and non-compliance penalties.

So given this cross section of America, one wonders how very differently each area views the concepts of energy benchmarking?

Municipal Buildings

By far the most common building type for which governments mandate energy benchmarking is a municipal or state-owned building.  Obviously they want to set a good example.  All the states mentioned above and all the cities, with the exception of Philadelphia, require some type of municipal or state-owned building to participate in energy benchmarking.

Some municipalities require all public buildings over 10,000 square feet to participate, others set the floor as high as 25,000 square feet, and we’ve even seen smaller municipalities’ benchmark buildings starting at 5,000 square feet.  Most public building energy data is tracked via Energy Star Portfolio Manager, except the state of Minnesota which uses B3 Benchmarking instead.  All these programs benchmark electric and natural gas usage, but only a few of them track water use.  You’d have thought benchmarking public buildings would have been more standard than this considering the common interests.  So one can just imagine how the quite varied private interests will complicate benchmarking.

Commercial Buildings

After public buildings, commercial buildings are the next most common type mandated to participate in energy benchmarking.  Most of the cities listed above, with the exception of Denver and Arlington, require commercial buildings to benchmark their energy use, and cities such as Chicago and Portland have proposed similar mandates.  State wise – only California and Washington currently mandate benchmarking of commercial buildings.

The energy benchmarking mandate for commercial buildings is certainly a smorgasbord of requirements.  Some places, such as California, require all commercial buildings over 5,000 square feet to participate.  Others such as New York City or Washington DC only require those that are over 50,000 square feet to participate.  Besides these minimum thresholds, some mandates also have language that allows unoccupied buildings, buildings under financial distress, or even new buildings to be exempt from benchmarking.  What qualifies as a commercial building, especially concerning multi-use buildings, can also vary per governing mandate.

All the commercial energy benchmarking mandates currently utilize Energy Star Portfolio Manager to track usage.  Hooray for some consistency!  But to whom this information is disclosed is another stark difference between benchmarking programs.  All current mandates, except the state of Washington, require disclosure to the government overseeing the program.  All cities, except Austin and Seattle, will also post this information on a public website.  Some programs require potential buyers, lessees, and lenders to be notified of benchmarking data, and even a couple of cities require current building tenants to be made aware of the data.  Are you confused yet?

Like public buildings, some programs mandate that water use be benchmarked as well, but not all programs dictate this.  A few of the mandates, including San Francisco and Seattle, also require the local utility to upload energy usage into the tracking software.  Energy benchmarking of commercial buildings may be popular, but as you can see, it doesn’t come in a standard package.

Multi-family Residential Buildings

The most contentious building class that may be mandated to participate in energy benchmarking is that of multi-family residential buildings.  As it can be difficult for owners of these buildings to accurately monitor usage and enforce compliance, only New York City, Washington DC, Boston, and Seattle have required these types of buildings to begin benchmarking.  If Rahm Emmanuel has his way, the City of Chicago might soon join this list as well.

For the most part, the requirements that govern multi-family residential energy benchmarking are the same as those overseeing commercial buildings.  One key difference is that some municipalities (Boston and Seattle) have used the number of units, in conjunction with square footage, to determine whether a multi-family residential building must participate.  There are also numerous exemptions these buildings can use to avoid benchmarking, but one would need to write a book to detail them all.  In general, though, tracking and disclosure information for multi-family residential buildings follows what is established for commercial buildings.

Get help with your benchmarking

So as you can see energy benchmarking is truly a nationwide phenomenon looking to improve the country’s energy efficiency, albeit through a multitude of complicated mandates.  Even in places without mandates, energy benchmarking is gaining popularity and is a great way for your building to better manage its energy and save money.

However, with the current lack of standardization and the myriad of legal and administrative requirements involved, you would be wise to enlist the help of an experienced and knowledgeable consultant to help you navigate the sometimes choppy waters.

An energy consultant will guide you through the process, taking care of all paperwork, and collecting and analyzing all data.  You’ll be able to understand where your building stands in relation to energy efficiency and be provided with a list of ways to improve your efficiencies moving forward. Consultants who offer additional services may be able to manage your energy efficiency projects as well.

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