October 4, 2011

Going green: new city law requires buildings to report energy use

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While more than 25 percent of Seattle’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, few property managers know how much energy their individual buildings consume.

 “They all know the mileage of their car,” Jayson Antonoff, sustainable infrastructure & green building policy advisor for the Seattle Department of Planning & Development, said. “But not the energy use of their building.”

By not knowing the amount, managers also don’t know how efficient their buildings are. Because many of the buildings are not as energy efficient as they could be, much of the energy paid for by property owners, building managers and tenants  goes to waste.

That could change. A new Seattle ordinance now requires managers of buildings larger than 10,000 square feet — a total of about 9,000 buildings — to report and disclose their annual energy consumption to the city.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Senior Policy Associate for the NW Energy Coalition Kim Drury said. “Feedback is critical in energy management.” The coalition is focused on development of renewable energy and energy conservation.

Drury was one of 50 people, including property managers, tenants, city officials and energy conservation activists, who worked in developing this policy as a way to achieve the overall goal of the Green Building Capital Initiative, which was to reduce energy consumption in Seattle’s existing buildings by 20 percent.

The problem for property managers is that tenants, not the managers, are oftentimes in control of the building’s energy use, she said.  Because many tenants pay some energy bills while the owners pay others, there is not a cumulative number for the entire building.

The first phase of the project requires all non-residential buildings larger than 50,000 square feet, a total of about 800 buildings, to begin reporting their energy consumption this week (Oct. 3). The second phase requires all multi-family and non-residential buildings larger than 10,000 square feet, an additional 8,000 properties, to comply by April 1, 2012.

The city does not anticipate any building managers to have problems meeting the deadlines, senior Planning & Development Specialist Rebecca Baker said.

Property management and real estate company Kidder Mathews sees benchmarking as the first step to improving the energy efficiency of its buildings, said Dave Low, the director of sustainability practices at the company.

“We really try and impress upon the owners the value of it,” Low said.

The company has 35 properties that must comply by the first deadline in October. But Low said it’s the company’s goal to have all its properties, a total of about 300 between the Seattle and Portland areas, benchmarking their energy use by 2012.

While there is no direct cost that comes with tracking energy use, Low said, the amount of time spent collecting and reporting the information is an expense to the company.

“We are talking about a lot of time when it comes to 300 properties,” he said.

However some property managers are concerned about the additional workload it creates in gathering and reporting this information, Antonoff said.  There are also property managers that question the value the information will bring, especially because oftentimes tenants, not the manager, are in control of the building’s energy use. 

A wasteful tenant would be reflected in the whole building’s consumption, he said, even though the property manager would have no control over the tenant’s energy use.

Owners and managers will upload their building’s energy performance onto an online, energy management portfolio provided by Energy Star, a joint program of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U. S. Department of Energy. Annual updates are then required.

The online portfolio helps managers track and analyze the building’s energy and water consumption and can rate and compare the building’s energy use to similar buildings in the region.

 “If you highlight on how buildings are using energy then they can improve accordingly,” Antonoff said.

Drury said she hopes the knowledge of the building’s overall energy consumption will motivate property managers and owners to improve the energy use, which in turn may lead to more green investments and jobs.

Another part of the ordinance requires property owners to provide any current or perspective lenders, tenants or buyers the information when requested.

This will allow for consumers to take energy consumption into consideration, which in turn will drive decisions of leasing and sale, Drury said. 

While the information will be available to the city and to affected parties, the city does not intend for the information to be made public, like similar ordinances in Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco require.

Antonoff said the reason is that it forces discourse about the energy efficiency of the building between consumers and the property managers.

Though Seattle is one of the early adapters to this type of policy, it is not the only city with a regulation like this one.

Buildings account for almost 40 percent of the entire country’s energy consumption. Cities such as Austin, Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco have all adopted similar legislation in order to help to reduce the amount of wasted energy.

Many additional states and cities are also considering legislation regarding building energy ratings and disclosure such as Portland, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Colorado.

Seattle has a long history of energy conservation efforts that began in the 1970s. Since 1978 the Pacific Northwest has met about half of the growing demand of electricity needs with conservation methods, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

In addition to reducing the city’s energy consumption by 20 percent, Antonoff said, they also hope to absorb all future growth of energy demand with efficiency and conservation methods.

 “Energy efficiency is a real resource,” Drury said.  “It’s not only about saving money.”

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