Benchmarking for Building Energy and Water Efficiency

Buildings in the U.S. are responsible for about 40% of the country’s energy consumption. As a result, there has been a concerted effort to cut down on energy and water usage in buildings. But improving a building’s energy performance doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes commitment and requires clear objectives and suitable resources to assist building owners and operators.

Information about energy use is critical for the accurate quantification and evaluation of building-use patterns. Once building owners have this information, they can develop effective ways to reduce their buildings’ energy and water use.

Benchmarking and disclosure about energy use provide a solid foundation for improving the energy performance of buildings.

How Benchmarking Works

Building energy and water benchmarking entails measuring the energy and water use of buildings and comparing it to:

  • The energy and water use of similar buildings
  • Its own previous energy and water use
  • A reference performance level of some type, for instance, a specified building energy code

By measuring and assessing the energy and water performance of building via benchmarking, building owners and operators are able to identify and prioritize various improvements that are likely to lead to greater efficiency.

Transparency, which is an essential element of benchmarking, involves making the data public and can provide an important incentive for improving performance. When benchmarking is part of a program, transparency enables leaders to recognize and reward improved performance.

Together, benchmarking and transparency drive and support a variety of measures that can be used to achieve energy and water efficiency, usually leading to substantial savings. These include operational changes as well as retrofits.

The Commitment to Support Benchmarking

Numerous cities and several counties and states have established mandatory requirements for energy benchmarking and transparency programs that cover public and commercial, and sometimes multifamily buildings. Some local governments and states have benchmarking programs that only relate to public buildings.

Additionally, there are several voluntary building energy-data programs including the well supported U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge that encourages building owners to share their annual energy-efficiency progress as well as any solutions that provide models that can realistically be replicated.

Benchmarking programs and processes vary from place to place, depending on the goals and priorities determined by state and local leaders.

Orlando, Florida, which has one of the newest benchmarking policies in place, has a broader mission than most, aiming, in the words of its mayor, Buddy Dyer, to transform it into “one of the most environmentally-friendly, economically and socially vibrant communities” in the United States. They have been strategizing since the launch of their Green Works Orlando Community Action Plan in 2013 and have established goals for 2040 that include addressing critical global issues that relate to energy and water efficiency.

While there are multiple variables, Orlando ultimately has the same or similar benchmarking outcomes that have been established by other cities: to save energy and therefore money, and to reduce carbon emissions. Other benefits include improving the quality of air inside buildings, as well as improving the comfort and productivity of those who live and work in buildings.

A company offering engineering solutions in Chicago, Orlando, New York, or whichever city your buildings are located in, will be able to evaluate your utility bills, calculate and verify consumption, analyze energy, water, and gas usage, and generally ensure annual compliance. In the case of Orlando, the company will also submit your Building Energy and Water Efficiency Strategy (BEWES) report to the City.

While water benchmarking is generally not mandatory, it is advantageous to combine it with energy-efficiency benchmarking because the two go hand-in-hand. For instance, because a huge amount of water is needed to generate electric power, by reducing energy demand, water use is also reduced.

Some of the benefits of energy benchmarking were highlighted in a 2015 impact study undertaken for the City of Orlando by The Greenlink Group, which is dedicated to solving multiple problems relating to water, energy, and sustainable economic developments in general. They looked specifically at the benefits of the Orlando City Council’s BEWES plan and found that it would likely save as much as $208 million in energy expenditure and conserve 900 million gallons of freshwater by 2030. It would also avoid up to 1.1 million metric tons of carbon-related pollution.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has established a state and local policy database that includes detailed information on:

  • Commercial benchmarking and disclosure policies.
  • Residential (including multifamily) rating, benchmarking, and disclosure policies and practices.
  • Voluntary policies and programs that encourage the benchmarking of energy in buildings through the use of ENERGY STAR’s Portfolio Manager.

The database lists all the cities, counties, and states that have some sort of benchmarking policy.

Portfolio Manager for Benchmarking

Designed and created by the U.S. federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager is an online tool that is made to measure and track the energy and water consumption in buildings. It also keeps track of greenhouse emissions.

All you need to manage the energy and water of a building are the relevant bills and some basic information about the building.

Portfolio Manager can also be used to set energy-use targets.

The tool uses information about energy and water consumption together with information about the building (including size) to produce a per square foot energy consumption figure that is normalized for space use and climate.

Typically, cities that require buildings to be benchmarked are expected to use the Portfolio Manager tool to calculate building energy benchmarking scores.

About the Author

Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of Nearby Engineers and New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Michael Tobias
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