US cities try 'benchmarking' to make buildings save more energy

'Benchmarking' motivates owners to rehab their buildings to save energy, carbon emissions, and fuel costs.

Blake Sell/Reuters/File
The sun sets on the city of Seattle, with its imposing Space Needle in the foreground. A new 'benchmarking' plan will require 8,000 Seattle building to report on their energy efficiency as a first step in making the city's buildings more 'green.'

Humans are an increasingly urbanized species; for the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas.

And that, of course, means more buildings, which means more concentrated energy usage.

Many cities are trying to limit carbon emissions by monitoring energy use to keep it at sustainable levels. A new monitoring approach, called “benchmarking," counts on a combination of raising awareness, motivating people through comparative measures, and fostering a sense of responsibility to help building owners be greener.

In New York City, benchmarking was piloted in August 2011, and it launched in November in Seattle; it is also currently launching in Austin, Texas; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C.

The idea behind benchmarking is that measuring and rating a building’s energy performance, and making that information available in certain contexts, can help owners identify ways to increase building energy efficiency and lower energy costs.

The key to the program’s success is its emphasis on transparency – even though the information is not completely public.

“Benchmarking creates awareness,” said Jayson Antonoff, Seattle’s program manager for the benchmarking and reporting initiative. After a building owner has done benchmarking, any current or potential tenant, buyer, or lender can request to see the energy performance report, so they can make informed decisions on using the building.

“We’re trying to get the framework in place so that the market can motivate building owners to improve energy performance,” added Antonoff.

In Seattle, the city sent out letters to the owners of 8,000 buildings a few weeks ago, notifying them that they need to begin benchmarking and reporting the energy use of their buildings. In this initial phase, nonresidential buildings over 50,000 square feet will be obliged to comply with the program. The next phase will require nonresidential buildings over 10,000 square feet and multifamily buildings with five or more units to benchmark and report by April 2012.

To assist building owners, Seattle’s city government has developed educational materials, including hands-on training workshops, webinars, and a “how to” guide on benchmarking, as well as information packets on utility energy-saving programs. The city has also partnered with local utilities to provide owners with the building energy consumption data they need.

A free online tool called Energy Star Portfolio Manager allows owners to easily see their buildings’ energy performance and how it compares to other, similar buildings. The next step in the process is an energy audit, where an expert comes on-site to look for opportunities to improve a building’s energy performance.

The benchmarking program is one component of broader efforts for cities to reduce their carbon emissions and energy-related costs. A few years ago, Seattle established citywide goals of 20 percent improvement across the entire stock of existing buildings by the year 2020. Now, as building owners report benchmarking data once a year to the city, they will be able to see their progress in meeting their sustainability goals.

There will be hefty fees for any building owner who does not comply with the program by its April deadline – but the punishment stops there. The Seattle program, unlike New York City’s, does not require the benchmarking information to be made available to the public.

“Only people involved in a transaction with a building can request the info from the owners – this makes owners feel like the issue is framed in a positive way, rather than ‘shaming,’ ” explained Antonoff. The private nature of the conversation also allows the owner to provide an explanation for a relatively bad rating – maybe he or she hasn’t had time to work on improving it yet, but plans to, for example.

The program seems promising precisely because it requires so much engagement – the evaluation and reporting of buildings’ energy usage is complemented by education and action.

“We are putting resources into outreach and training because we really want people to understand why this is important, valuable information that can help them operate businesses more efficiently and increasing building values,” explained Antonoff.

By finding ways to work within a positive mentality, and increasing awareness of energy issues, Seattle hopes that it will reach its goals of reducing carbon emissions, reducing energy waste, and becoming a greener home for its residents.

This article first appeared at

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