U.S. cities are leading the way on climate and energy policies, especially policies targeting commercial and residential buildings, which can account for up to 75 percent of total energy use in cities.
Fifteen cities now have benchmarking and disclosure laws, which require building owners to report their buildings’ annual energy use to the local government, according to Dr. Margaret Walls of Resources for the Future. These include the early adopters of Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, and New York, which passed their laws in 2008 and 2009, and Portland, Ore., Atlanta, and Kansas City, Mo., all of which adopted them in 2015.
Some cities also have adopted “stretch” building energy codes, which require that new buildings achieve higher energy efficiency than set in the base code. For example, Boston requires buildings to be 20 percent more efficient than the code established in the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). Others are looking to creative financing programs, such as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs that allow building owners to pay back low-interest energy efficiency loans through property taxes. And many cities have established renewable energy requirements. Complementing these programs are often an array of utility or state government rebates and other incentives.
The benchmarking and disclosure laws may be having the greatest impact, the newspaper reports. They require commercial, and in some cities, multifamily residential property owners to report annual energy use and use the Energy Star software program to benchmark that energy use relative to other buildings. The laws are intended to make building energy information more widely available to the marketplace, thereby allowing tenants, buyers and lenders to consider energy more carefully in their decision-making. The thinking is that this will, in turn, provide feedback effects to property owners who will then make changes to improve energy efficiency.
These are still early days for some of the programs, so it’s too soon to know the extent to which these feedback effects are occurring. So far, the laws seem to be making building owners in cities where the laws have passed more attentive to energy use.
In recent research with Resources for the Future, it’s estimated that utility bills dropped by about 3 percent, on average, in office buildings covered by the laws in four cities (Austin, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco).
Most of the early advances have come from use of “big data.” New companies have sprung up to provide real-time, energy-use data — often at 15-minute intervals — to building owners to help them better understand daily patterns of energy use, identify anomalies when and where they occur, and optimize operational improvements. In the future, innovation is likely to come from the “Internet of Things,” the connection of sensors, software and electronics in physical objects (such as equipment and buildings) to wired and wireless networks. Some companies already have developed thermostats that work with wireless remote sensors that sense temperature and occupancy in different rooms.
Other innovations starting to penetrate the market are automated window shades and a new type of window glass that electronically senses sunlight and heat and changes its tint throughout the day. More and more buildings also are relying on renewable energy and a few trendsetters are “net zero energy” — i.e., they produce as much energy as they use. Finally, nature is also playing a part via green roofs. These not only reduce building energy use but provide community benefits by reducing stormwater runoff, lowering the urban heat island effect, and providing green spaces that will become increasingly valuable as urban populations grow. Green roofs might even be available for “farm”-to-table dining; at least one restaurant in the D.C. suburbs is working with its building owner and farming on the rooftop.