Fess up: Seattle wants to know what buildings waste energy

A new city ordinance requires managers of some 9,000 buildings to report their annual energy consumption to the city.

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Seattle lost jobs while King County gained them during the past decade.

A new city ordinance requires managers of some 9,000 buildings to report their annual energy consumption to the city.

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,” said Jayson Antonoff, sustainable infrastructure and green building policy advisor for the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. “But not the energy use of their building.”

Without tracking energy use, 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 are often times in control of the building’s energy use, not the managers, 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 energy benchmarking 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. 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 will have problems meeting the deadlines, senior Planning and 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 their 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 meet the October deadline. But Low said it’s the company’s goal to have all their properties, a total of about 300 between the Seattle and Portland area, 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 who question the value the information will bring, especially because of the frequent times tenants are in control of building’s the energy use, not the manager. A wasteful tenant would be reflected in the whole building’s consumption, he said, even though the property manager would have no control over their energy use.

Owners and managers will upload their building’s energy performance to 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.

Buildings account for almost 40 percent of the entire country’s energy consumption. Besides the cities that have adopted or are considering ordinances, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Colorado are among the states where legislation regarding building energy ratings and disclosure has been proposed.

Seattle has a long history of energy conservation efforts that began in the 1970s. Over the past three decades the Pacific Northwest has met about half of the growing demand of electricity 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, officials 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.”

InvestigateWest is a nonprofit investigative journalism center covering the Pacific Northwest. For information on how you can support independent investigative reporting for the common good, go to invw.org.


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