Energy efficiency can be an abstract term and people often struggle to grasp what it is. This is why programs, such as building energy benchmarking, have seen a rise in popularity over the past five years. Energy benchmarking creates awareness of a building’s energy usage in comparison to buildings in the same neighborhood or community.
Businesses and residents have a desire to be more efficient with their energy use, but usage data is largely hidden from view, especially in buildings with tenants. Therefore, we’ve seen a trend for cities and counties to implement either mandatory or voluntary energy benchmarking programs to create baseline awareness for current energy use. In fact, approximately seven percent of floor space in the U.S. is now covered by energy benchmarking programs, according to the BCSE/BNEF Sustainable Energy in America Factbook 2014. This is in large part due to the success of early programs started in major cities, such as New York City and Chicago. Energy benchmarking programs may sound fairly simple, but there are a few challenges and tips to be cognizant of before implementing a program.
State-by-state, or even city-by-city, variances
Energy benchmarking policies are typical driven by local governments. Couple this with individual state policies on energy use privacy, and there’s a wide variance in the ease of implementing an energy benchmarking program. Public utility commissions tend to have limitations on what energy data they can share, and with whom, which can mean building owners looking to implement an energy benchmarking program must work directly with their tenants to collect energy usage data (typically a 12-month history of energy use) which can be an arduous process. If utilities aren’t set up to report energy usage data or are not allowed by law to do so, it requires more work on building owners to comply with energy benchmarking policies – from collecting the data from tenants to uploading the information to software.
Energy benchmarking doesn’t equal energy efficiency
To make progress in energy efficiency, there needs to be an understanding of current energy use and motivation for building owners and residents to make improvements. Energy benchmarking programs provide this baseline knowledge of how a building performs in comparison to its “peer” buildings. This evaluation tells building owners what their performance is – if the building is a poor performer, it may prompt an owner to undertake an intervention or gain more education about the reason behind the poor performance. The goal behind energy benchmarking initiatives is to prompt behavior change that will lead to increased energy efficiency.
There’s a correlation between energy benchmarking programs and reduced energy usage. Between 2008 and 2011, the EPA analyzed 35,000 buildings which used the Energy Star Portfolio Manager, a popular energy benchmarking tool, and the results showed that during that time, energy use declined by an average of seven percent. While this percentage may not seem like a major reduction, it can be impactful in a major city, such as New York City or Chicago. Plus, from a policy perspective, these small gains accumulate quickly across an entire market.
Keys for successful energy benchmarking
Energy benchmarking programs are still in their infancy. However, there’s a desire among current programs to have ordinances move in concert with requirements. For example, there could be more voluntary participation in energy benchmarking programs if local utilities were aware of, and willing and able to provide energy use data to building owners, and local policies encouraged the sharing of such information.
While it’s still early to know about all the benefits of energy benchmarking, these programs have generated interest and market awareness of energy efficiency. And knowledge makes it easier to take informed action.
Scott Tew is the executive director, Center for Energy Efficiency & Sustainability at Ingersoll Rand, which advances the quality of life by creating comfortable, sustainable and efficient environments. The company’s brands— including Club Car, Ingersoll Rand, Thermo King and Trane —work together to enhance the quality and comfort of air in homes and buildings; transport and protect food and perishables; and increase industrial productivity and efficiency.