New York City Study Conclusion: Benchmarking Works

August 25, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk


Photo: Martin Grandjean

An important study on the impact of benchmarking on big apartment and office buildings in New York City offers proof of something that can benefit energy managers everywhere: Simply providing people with insight into their energy use tends to promote efficiency.

The study – which is posted in its entirety by Crain’s New York Business – was conducted by New York University’s Center for Urban Science Progress (CUSP) and Urban Green, which is the New York City chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. It examines the impact of Local Law 84 (LL84), which was promulgated in 2009. The law mandated that buildings of 50,000 square feet or more annually report energy and water consumption. The performance of these buildings than can be compared.

The study looked at the results of the LL84 from 2010 to 2013. The bottom line was that water and energy use patterns improved:

The data the City collects show that the carbon emissions and energy use of benchmarked buildings have decreased over time. Between 2010 and 2013, emissions from 3,000 consistently benchmarked properties dropped by 8 percent, while energy use decreased by 6 percent (Figure 2).

Important context is that in 2007 the Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions projected that emissions would increase by 27 percent by 2030 if existing use patterns didn’t change. It is virtually certain that energy use would have escalated over the period as well.

The Crain’s story on the study suggested, simply, that if you tell people how they are doing, they are likely to strive to improve. This could be simply because they previously didn’t know what steps to take or a function of people’s competitive natures. The bottom line is that benchmarking works:

Although some of the reduction was likely due to energy retrofits or upgrades, experts said the overall numbers prove the law’s basic idea: owners will reduce their power consumption if they see how much energy they are using compared with other buildings of similar size.

New York City’s Energy and Water Use 2013 Report points to four areas that show particularly high potential: Improving heating efficiency, preventing energy losses from windows and wall air conditioning units, updating lighting and installing lighting controls.

The project is by no means unique, however. The advantages of benchmarking were illustrated in a study last year of 550 buildings last year by EnergyScorecardsMinnesota. The project – and the broader world of energy benchmarking – was discussed in an Energy Manager Today podcast with Jonathan Braman, the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Bright Power. Xcel Energy and the State of Minnesota’s Division of Energy Resource also participated in the project.

A. Messe Supply, a Chicago-based plumbing and heating supply company, posted a commentary that points to a second, deeply related layer of potential of benchmarking: Not only can it tell an organization how it is doing. It can tell them how to move more effectively into the future:

Another additional benefit in performing energy benchmarking is that you will be able to create a management action plan so that commercial building owners will know in what areas to make minor and major investments for energy efficiency. You will also have objective findings that will allow you to [replicate] good energy performance in other buildings and facilities that you manage. Lastly, it will allow you to prioritize the areas of operations that should see changes first while low priority energy problems can be pushed further down the list so you can create the greatest amount of required changes immediately.

There are some high level takeaways that can immediately be gleaned from the New York City study. “Make sure lighting and equipment is turned off at night or when not in use,” Cecil Scheib, Chief Program Officer of Urban Green Council, told Energy Manager Today. “If you look at 15-minute interval data for buildings – especially offices – many of them are using 60% as much energy during the night as during the day. That’s the lowest-hanging fruit for energy savings. The biggest not-simple step is improving heating efficiency. This is essential for reducing emissions because it’s the largest source of energy usage in both office and residential buildings.”

Another takeaway from the project is that energy efficiency processes are evolving quickly and will lead to even greater gains in the future. “With a more widespread adoption of existing building technologies, we could see efficiency gains of 30-50%,” Constantine Kontokosta at CUSP’s Deputy Director, Academics, told Energy Manager Today in response to emailed questions. “As technology improves over time, and as energy reporting and benchmarking become more ubiquitous, we would expect the potential for energy use reductions to continue to increase. However, one persistent challenge has been around changing behavior, both of building occupants and the owners, tenants, and investors that must prioritize energy efficiency in their decision-making. Greater access to information on energy use patterns and better data on what retrofit opportunities actually work are critical to accelerating the diffusion of energy efficiency improvements and to giving energy managers the tools they need to achieve potential reductions.”

The New York City project and the resulting report from Urban Green and CUSP provide a particularly clear example of the benefits of energy benchmarking. Perhaps, at the end of the day, the growing attention to reducing emissions and enhancing energy efficiency grows–combined with the rapid development of tools for collecting and analyzing data–will make benchmarking an indispensable tool in efforts to drive energy efficiency.

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