The City of Seattle has set a goal of reducing energy use by 20 percent over 2005 levels by 2020. To do that, it has to make major improvements in the half of all energy use which occurs in buildings. The City’s energy code for new buildings is state of the art. But that alone won’t achieve the City’s goal, because of course most of the buildings in the City were built under older energy codes or before there were energy codes.

In January of 2010 the Seattle City Council passed Ordinance 123226, which requires owners of all non-residential buildings in Seattle over 10,000 square feet in size and all multi-family building with five or more dwelling units to submit an energy benchmarking report to the Director of the Department of Planning and Development. For non-residential buildings over 50,000 square feet, October 1, 2011 is the deadline for submission of the initial report. For non-residential building larger than 10,000 square feet but less than 50,000 square feet the deadline for submission of the initial benchmark report is April 1, 2012. The deadline for multi-family and mixed use buildings is also April 1, 2012. All covered building owners must then provide updated reports to the Department by April 1 of each subsequent year.

The ability to do building energy benchmarking on any widespread scale is made possible by the EPA’s EnergyStar program. The EnergyStar program has developed an on-line tool that EPA calls “Portfolio Manager” which allows a building owner to enter information about a building’s energy use on line, and produces a standardized report. Puget Sound Energy, Seattle City Light and Seattle Steam have developed programs that allow downloading of a building’s utility bill records directly into the EnergyStar program. That simplifies the process of preparing the report – at least to the point of making it conceivably possible. But there is still significant information that will need to be gathered for the report, such as how many people work in the building and how many computers they have. The process has spawned a new consulting field – of people who will do that work for building owners.
In order to complete the energy benchmark report, owners will need to get information from their tenants. Tenants can be subject to citation by the City if they don’t provide the information when their landlord asks for it. Conversely, landlords are excused from the obligation to provide the benchmark report to the Department during periods when they have asked tenants for required information and the tenant has not provided it.

The purpose of the ordinance is to lead over time to energy efficiency improvements in the majority of Seattle buildings which were constructed before current energy codes were in place. The City has been aggressive in adopting ever-improved energy codes for its new buildings. But modern energy codes do not do anything to improve the efficiency of existing buildings – at least unless the owner seeks to remodel the building. Even when buildings are remodeled, it may not be possible or desirable to use that as an occasion to force major upgrades in energy performance. So the concept behind the ordinance is that knowledge will lead to improvements without a regulatory hammer. If a building owner sees that their building is substantially less energy efficient than other similar size and age buildings, they are likely to start asking what they can do to bring their building up to the norm.

It may even be that there will be improvements from the simple act of getting a building’s management arm talking to its accounting department. “Tuning” a building’s energy systems can make a big difference in energy use. But in many if not most buildings, the folks who operate the furnace and air conditioning systems don’t often talk to the accounting department and never see the utility bills. It is hard to know where you can make improvements when you don’t know where the problems are.

The ordinance also provides that upon request, the building owners must provide the report to current tenants, prospective tenants negotiating a lease, potential buyers negotiating a purchase and sale agreement, and potential lenders considering an application for financing or refinancing the building. The hope is that over time, energy efficiency will become one of the criteria that tenants and lenders use in selecting buildings to do business with, and that too will lead to energy improvement investments by building owners.

For building owners needing help, there are lots of on-line resources.

Of course one might ask, what happens if they give this party and no one comes?? The penalties for non-compliance are modest – starting at $150, then going to $150/day if the cited owner does not provide the benchmark report within 15 days after the citation is issued. After another ten days of noncompliance the penalty goes to $500/day. So missing the deadline is not painful initially, but can become painful if an owner continues to ignore the requirement.