National Building Audit To Reset Crucial Energy Use Benchmarks

Long-delayed effort by EIA will quantify a decade of energy efficiency gains and focus decision-makers around higher standards.

Downtown Chicago, Gravitywave on flickr
Downtown Chicago, Gravitywave on flickr

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The recent explosion of efficiency efforts across the country has slashed energy use in U.S. buildings, but by how much, exactly?

After fits and starts, a federal statistics agency is finally poised to begin finding out.

Early this year the Energy Information Administration, the analysis arm of the Department of Energy, quietly resumed an elaborate—and some say long overdue—energy audit of thousands of commercial buildings, compiling the information that property owners, green building certifiers and government officials use to make decisions about buildings.

The survey, known as the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey, or CBECS (pronounced see-becks), will be published in 2014. Until then, the building community will have to rely on EIA’s most recent analysis from 2004, which uses data from 2003, before the wave of government green buildings codes and federal stimulus money swept in.

EIA is supposed to publish the CBECS about every four years to help track the country’s energy footprint, since commercial buildings guzzle one-fifth of U.S. energy. But budget cuts hampered the current effort, which was supposed to be published by 2013. The report before that, expected in 2009, was canceled altogether because of faulty data.

The ten-year gap between this snapshot and the last one worries some efficiency advocates, who say the country needs the CBECS to be up-to-date because it sets the national baseline that all commercial buildings are compared against.

State governments, for instance, often require buildings to be certain percentage points more efficient than the CBECS baseline. It is also used by the two leading green building rating bodies—the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program and the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program—to help them determine whether a building gets their seal of approval.

Lauren Riggs, a manager in the LEED program, said an update is “really important.” Because of efficiency improvements, she said, buildings considered models of efficiency according to the 2003 benchmark might, in reality, be average. A report released in January and covered by InsideClimate News found that last year EIA dramatically lowered projections for energy use from America’s homes and commercial properties.

Tom Leckey, director of EIA’s office of energy consumption and efficiency statistics, said  “the importance of the survey has grown over time.” This year marks the first time in more than three decades of these surveys that EIA will include suggestions from groups who use the data the most, he told InsideClimate News.

Leckey said stakeholder discussions will last several months. EIA will randomly select a sample of 8,400 buildings to audit, out of the country’s five million commercial properties—a 50 percent larger sample than in 2003. Buildings will range from airports and fast-food chains to tiny neighborhood laundromats.

By April 2013 the agency will send a troop of 300 to 400 researchers to the buildings to catalogue everything from types of light bulbs and air conditioning units to sources of electricity consumed and yearly utility bills.

Later that year it will draw conclusions from the trove of statistics. All data—which includes things like how much electricity a building gobbles per square foot and what kind of water heating system it has—will be available for free on EIA’s website. The survey will cost $12.4 million to complete and will be the agency’s ninth such analysis.

What Took So Long?

The agency conducted its first CBECS in 1979, as part of its larger mission to gather data on U.S. energy supply and demand. Congress created the agency a year earlier, along with the Department of Energy, after the 1973 oil embargo revealed a need to cut the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

Getting a complete picture of the country’s energy use was crucial to that goal.

Roughly every four years EIA produced the buildings survey, until 2007. That year, with budget cuts looming, the agency decided to work with a contractor at the University of Chicago who developed a statistical method that required fewer human researchers. The approach would have cut survey costs by 30 percent, but by spring 2011, EIA announced it would not publish the survey because the contractor’s data was faulty, Leckey said.

By that time the agency had started the initial work on its current analysis using its boots-on-the-ground approach. But when Congress approved a budget compromise in April 2011 that trimmed $15 million from EIA’s funding, or 14 percent of its total budget, the agency put the CBECS on hold. It resumed in January of this year, after Congress restored $10 million of the funds in a late December budget deal.

More Rigorous Green Certification Ahead?

When the survey is published in 2014, expect it to reflect a major shift toward energy efficiency in the built environment, Riggs of the U.S. Green Building Council told InsideClimate News.

Her prediction is based on the tremendous increase in laws, tax incentives and other polices targeting energy savings, and on growing consumer demand for green buildings. 

The national 2007 energy law requires that by 2015, all new and renovated federal buildings must slash energy use by 30 percent below the 2003 baseline. In 2009. the stimulus earmarked $6.3 billion to help states make energy-efficient changes to their buildings. Last year, California’s mandatory statewide green building code, the first in the nation, took effect. Additionally, more efficient and money-saving lighting solutions, appliances and energy management software have hit the mass market.

EPA’s 17-year-old Energy Star program, the nation’s oldest and most rigorous efficiency seal for buildings, is also driving efforts, experts say. Builders seek the coveted certification as a way to meet state mandates, get tax breaks and attract tenants. Approval for most buildings is based in part on how much more efficient they are compared to the 2003 baseline, in the year the label is given. The EPA uses CBECS data to develop “comparative metrics,” it says, such as average energy consumption per square foot and typical fuels used.

So far EPA has certified more than 16,000 commercial buildings, which it says use 35 percent less energy per square foot than the average.

EPA told InsideClimate News it would update Energy Star to reflect new data from CBECS. The program uses a 1 to 100 scale to rank energy performance. Currently, a score of 75 or higher qualifies them for the Energy Star label.

The LEED certification program, a globally recognized label for green buildings since 1998, relies heavily on the Energy Star program–and, as a result, CBECS data. Like EPA, LEED ranks commercial buildings based on 12 months of data. A score of at least 69 on the Energy Star scale can qualify an old building for LEED certification, while new buildings are judged using a seperate LEED model. Nearly 12,000 commercial buildings have earned LEED certification so far.

Riggs said the new CBECS baseline could make the Energy Star label harder to get. Properties that once scored a 75, for instance, might see their ranking slip as average buildings become more efficient, she said.

“People will have to start working harder” to live up to their label, Riggs said.

Michael Kaplan, vice president of marketing at Retroficiency, a Boston-based firm that provides virtual energy audits for commercial buildings, said advanced modeling tools are emerging that allow builders to show the way forward on efficiency.

The CBECS is “a starting point to get people interested in thinking about, ‘how can I improve?'” Kaplan said. 

Retroficiency, which is a year old, creates energy models using software that predicts how much energy a planned building will use if it swaps energy-guzzling features for different kinds of efficiency technologies. It’s one of a handful of similar firms that have popped up across the country.

As a building owner or manager “you want to understand where you should be, not necessarily where everyone else is. That’s where we’re looking to push the market,” Kaplan said.