Photo by Flickr user gill.holgate

The DOE has shuttered its national survey of building energy use. We offer some suggestions to building managers in need of benchmarks.

It’s the first question on many building manager’s minds when they review energy data: how am I doing relative to similar buildings? How much energy should my building be consuming? Is my energy target realistic?

Since 1979, the energy community has turned for help to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Commercial Building Energy Survey (CBECS).  As many blogs have noted, CBECS is no longer, a victim of a $15M funding cut. Many questions have been asked about how this affects EnergyStar, since Energy Star relies on CBECS data for benchmarking. EnergyStar has formally announced they will continue with the 2003 data set.

So the question, two months after the decision, is what do to if you’re a property owner or facility manager looking to measure and manage the performance of your buildings. Here’s a recipe Gridium is recommending to clients.

Determine how energy benchmarking affects your asset value

The rise of building labeling standards in California, San Francisco, New York City, and elsewhere means that some commercial building owners could be looking at asset value impact (either positive or negative). Many of these proposed regulations use EnergyStar as the data standard, and any changes the industry was expecting to see in the 2007 data are now not going to show up. If your building is one of these districts, a change in the underlying benchmark data could change your performance and therefore could affect building value — for better or for worse. Advocacy and involvement here have substantial benefits; policymakers don’t have your familiarity with building issues, and to the extent they understand how policy changes affect actually building owners, they can more effectively craft the rules. At the very least, sign up for email alerts (or set up google alerts), join your local BOMA, and keep up-to-date on relevant issues.

Familiarize yourself with the data issues

CBECS was not without its critics, and to the extent that you are on the “losing” end of a benchmarking exercise, you should understand some of the real issues with the survey data and be able to advocate for your team and property. In particular, CBECS has a small sample size (only 960 office buildings), energy use is not adjusted for weather or occupancy, and there is documented confusion over what constitutes “gross” square footage. For more details, see this excellent overview paper (pdf). If you are considering or commenting on a new benchmark standard, make sure it answers these critiques.

California customers have a great alternative in the California End Use Survey

Explore alternatives

California customers have a great alternative in the California End Use Survey (CEUS). Over 2,700 buildings are benchmarked allowing for very finegrained comparisons. Gridium benchmarks with both CBECS and CEUS for California customers, giving another perspective into energy use. An often overlooked alternative is internal benchmarking. If you have more than a three buildings, looking at a simple site-normalized metric like kbtu/square foot can be very informative for energy teams trying to compare leaders and laggards. The outliers, both good and bad, will tell the story of how energy is managed in your organization. Some in the industry are shifting their focus to ASTM BEP, a standardized process for benchmarking.  Finally, if you are friendly with other building professionals with very similar portfolios, why not offer to trade data?

Continue submetering and consolidating data center and lab space

Confounded data from multi-use buildings continues to be a major problem for benchmarking efforts. This is particularly so when buildings mix normal office space with a high-intensity data center or lab. It’s not uncommon for the 10% of space dedicated to racks of computers or lab equipment to drive over 90% of energy use (and spend). No matter what energy benchmarking data set is used, your team’s ability to separately isolate and manage the high-intensity space will help identify opportunities for savings. Developing formal policies when starting new data center space or consolidating existing space helps avoid energy benchmarking surprises.

Benchmarking is just one approach to saving money

Relax, focus on the savings

Benchmarking is just one approach to save money for your team. With a very good peer data set, benchmarking can sometimes shine the light on savings opportunities, but often it is an imperfect lens through which to evaluate your efficiency efforts. If benchmarking is not saving you money, and it’s not required in your district, your efforts may be better spent trying to implement reductions you know are needed.

. . .
For those trying to read the tea leaves on future environmental regulation, the shutdown of CEBCS is part of a broader trend of the government closing “collaborative” programs and getting out of activities they believe can be handled by the private sector. Last fall, Climate Leaders, a  technical assistance and recognition program was shuttered in a move that indicated a sharp divergence from EPA administrators of past. Climate Leaders will be replaced by a new national awards program run by environmental groups and co-sponsored by the EPA. As Energy Star gets out off the business of  providing award plaques, look for more changes in this area. One can only wonder if MBECS, the manufacturing version of CBECS, will be funded next year? Certainly corporate facility managers are looking askance at collaborative programs after changes like these.

For now, we won’t discuss why a $400M loan guarantee to a floundering solar company is appropriate, but a $4M annual expense for basic data collection used by 150,000 buildings is not.

About Tom Arnold

Tom Arnold is co-founder and CEO of Gridium. Prior to Gridium, Tom Arnold was the Vice President of Energy Efficiency at EnerNOC, and cofounder at TerraPass. Tom has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. When he isn't thinking about the future of buildings, he enjoys riding his bike and chasing after his two daughters.

You may also be interested in...

Lighting-only efficiency projects are like strip mining...

Building owners should think twice about doing a lighting-only efficiency upgrade. Here’s why: it can take away your ability to perform a more comprehensive deep efficiency retrofit of your building. Lighting projects seem like total winners. Lighting efficiency measures have quick paybacks. New LED lights can be up to 75% more efficient than your old… Read More