Energy Benchmarking: What it Means for You

By Matt Baker

Last October, the City of Chicago passed an energy benchmarking ordinance, requiring buildings of a certain size and function to track and report their energy use. It can be a confusing, and even controversial, topic. Five industry experts spoke at the Building Green Chicago conference in an effort to explain the ordinance, help building owners and managers discover what steps they need to take and, ultimately, how benchmarking can be a benefit to them and the city.

BenchmarkJamie Ponce is the Chicago City Director for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. He works in Mayor Emanuel’s office on his administration’s energy benchmarking policy. “In Chicago, building energy use represents 71% of our carbon footprint and we spend $3 billion on energy to heat and cool our buildings,” Ponce said. “That’s too big an opportunity to pass up.”

Of the roughly 500,000 buildings in Chicago, the new ordinance covers about 3,500 of the largest municipal, commercial and residential buildings. That’s less than 1% of the building stock in the city, but they use 20% of the total energy used by buildings.

The ordinance itself boils down to having those 3,500 buildings track their energy use at the whole building level, reporting those numbers annually to the city and to verify their data accuracy every three years. The ordinance does not include any mandatory improvements. “Buildings are not required to invest in energy efficiency,” Ponce said. “But we all believe that raising awareness, by understanding how buildings are performing, will open the door to conversations and actions that will substantially improve our buildings’ energy efficiency.”

The ordinance calls for a phased implementation, with the very largest commercial buildings, those bigger than 250,000 SF, reporting this summer. Gradually, buildings that are smaller—though still quite large—and of different use such as residential, will begin to track and report. Many of the city’s largest buildings are already tracking their energy use; this is a great way to do so that generates data for comparable buildings and energy users.

The utilities have been a big part of making the ordinance feasible by providing aggregate building data. “We’ve been happy to work with the city on the ordinance and with the utilities on implementing it,” said Michael Cornicelli, the Executive Vice President of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago (BOMA/Chicago). “We’ve helped to get ComEd to provide aggregated data for purposes of portfolio manager benchmarking. That was not the case in this jurisdiction before.”

For tracking purposes, reporting buildings will use Energy Star Portfolio Manager, the online software developed by the EPA for this very purpose and used by many for years. Bob Best directs business operations for Technical Services at JLL, formerly Jones Lang LaSalle. “We encourage our managers to participate in Energy Star and have for quite a while,” Best said, pointing out that the impact of requiring these buildings to use Portfolio Manager will probably be minimal because they should already have been doing it.

Best pointed out a great benefit of the software, and the new ordinance. “When a building not in Energy Star Portfolio Manager participates,” he said, “if they do nothing else their energy generally starts going down 2-3% per year.” Meaning that just awareness of building operations leads to better energy use.

Ponce agreed. “Energy benchmarking is far from an end in itself,” he said. “Energy benchmarking gives us a number and a sense of energy performance. But it’s really through action that we are going to achieve those goals of competitiveness, livability and sustainability.” Although the Chicago benchmarking ordinance does not require any mandatory building improvement or investment, it does authorize the city to disclose publicly the energy performance of covered buildings. “Buildings can take action if they choose to impact their energy performance,” Ponce said.

There is a full time help center available, staffed by Elevate Energy. Adam Mays, the Benchmarking Project Lead for the nonprofit organization commended the city on their roll-out of the ordinance. “The main challenge we’re seeing is getting information to people,” he said. His organization has been working with the city to send letters to owners and managers of affected buildings and reaching out to large portfolios. They also put together step by step documents that contain everything a building manager would need to know to follow the ordinance and get their building benchmarked.

The USGBC and the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance have been conducting weekly training sessions about the ordinance and using Portfolio Manager. There are also sessions on how to improve energy efficiency in general.

There are also pro bono verifiers familiar with Portfolio Manager who can work with the building management. These verifiers can provide a touch point for the buildings to speak with a certified energy manager familiar with Energy Star. “They can talk to these buildings and say, ‘these are the steps you can take to actually improve this score and work towards energy efficiency,’ since that is goal of this ordinance,” said Mays

Once a building owner bought in to the idea of making energy-saving changes, there are a bevy of options available to them. “I’ve got a customer in the city, that had some old glass skylights that everyone is familiar with,” said Rod Petrick, owner of Ridgeworth Roofing and a Trustee with the Chicagoland Roofing Council. “He put prismatic daylighting in and he no longer turns the lights on in his warehouse.”

For many building owners and managers, according to Cornicelli, cost is the most important factor behind any decisions that impact their properties. “I hate to say, this but it’s true. This is all about money. This is about increasing asset value and making these assets attractive to tenants and investors,” Cornicelli said. “Nobody is going to do it if it doesn’t pay off without having it jammed down their throats.”

BOMA/Chicago worked with the city when the benchmarking ordinance was first proposed. “We came away from this with a little give and take, and we’re all happy to be supporting this,” Cornicelli said. “We’re’ looking at significant cost reductions, value enhancement by better income streams from these assets and making them more attractive to investors and tenants.”

Ultimately, that’s what this legislation is all about: improving the energy performance in our buildings while simultaneously increasing their value. It was the mayor’s hope, according to Ponce, that the energy benchmarking ordinance will make Chicago competitive on the cost of doing business and make the city a magnet for young talent.

Photo: Joy Xie

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