According to the U.S. Department of Energy, commercial buildings account for nearly 50% of all building energy use and about 20% of total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. New York, Seattle, Boston, and a growing number of cities require or are developing benchmarking systems to track and improve building energy efficiency; the nation’s capital has been monitoring public building performance since 2010. The initial phase included only buildings over 200,000 gross SF, but by 2013, private buildings over 100,000 gross SF were required to report energy and water use. In 2014, the program expanded to include commercial and multifamily buildings over 50,000 gross SF.
The District of Columbia’s Department of the Environment (DDOE) collaborated closely for several years with developers, energy experts, and environmental groups to develop its benchmarking system. The Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 (CAEA) requires that owners of large commercial buildings annually measure and report energy and water use to the DDOE for public disclosure. CAEA-mandated benchmarking means that each building’s annual consumption is tracked and compared with its own past performance and with the performance of similar buildings around the country. Studies have shown that benchmarking is an effective way to drive energy efficiency improvements and to improve property values. Tenants with the option of choosing between two similar buildings tend to choose the one that uses less energy and water (at least as those are manifested in reimbursable operating costs).
Benchmarks are also important tools for reducing energy costs to taxpayers, says Brian Hanlon, Director of the District’s Department of General Services. In the District Public Building Benchmarking Report for fiscal years 2009–2012, Hanlon emphasizes D.C.’s efforts to lead by example. Says Hanlon, “We want to show all building owners the value of energy benchmarking as a path to saving money, reducing environmental impact and improving our city.”
Even before the CAEA passed, some of the city’s largest property owners already tracked water and energy use, but many struggled at first to interpret the law’s requirements and welcomed a 2011 delay in implementation. The gradual phase-in of more buildings, based on size, has given the DDOE time to prepare detailed guidelines to facilitate compliance, including a handy Benchmarking Checklist. To determine if a property is required to benchmark, an owner or manager can check the DDOE’s Covered Building List and the building’s blueprints to confirm gross square footage. Notably, some exemptions may be granted for buildings that are unoccupied, vacating early in the year, new construction or where energy use disclosure might jeopardize national security. Exemption requests must be sent in writing to the DDOE. Also, in single-tenant buildings, benchmarking may be delegated to the tenant, with prior notification of the DDOE.
Data collection worksheets identify the whole building or individual meter utility information that needs to be collected. The Data Collection Worksheets also require disclosure of the major space use types within each building, essential to make accurate comparisons of consumption between buildings. Reporting involves accessing the correct year’s Report Template and downloading it to an Energy Star Portfolio Manager account. EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager is the industry’s standard tool for benchmarking—already, 40% of commercial building space is tracked with Energy Star. From the Energy Star site, each building’s data needs to be sent to DDOE by each year’s April 1 deadline.
Help for those new to benchmarking or to DC’s system is available in several forms. The Energy Star site includes a benchmarking starter kit to help owners and managers make a habit of collecting needed data each month. The DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) Benchmarking Help Center is available year-round to respond to technical questions and maintains a list of consulting firms offering benchmarking services for anyone seeking professional assistance. DCSEU also offers training sessions for learning how to benchmark and report any type of property. The most important step in benchmarking, however, may be interpreting and acting upon the results of year-to-year data comparisons. Experts at DCSEU will also work with owners and managers to identify needed energy and water efficiency upgrades so that the program’s goal of continually improving efficiency over time is achieved throughout the city.