Transforming our Nation’s Building Stock: The Role of a MPG Rating and Fuel Efficiency Standards

The Era of $1 Gasoline and 7 ¢ kwh Utility Electricity is Over

Everywhere we look we’re confronted with the rising costs of energy, whether you’re paying that monthly utility bill, booking a flight, or simply filling up your tank, it’s impossible to ignore the ever increasing cost of energy.  Politically, we’ve seen the latest iteration of the blame game and plenty of associated mud throwing. But in many ways this isn’t anything new—just a bit more global (and thus less ‘controllable’.)
What’s more, we’ve watched every President since FDR try to create a sustainable energy policy at the national level. In 2008 President Bush acknowledged Americans were addicted to oil and more recently President Obama described the issues facing Americans in this way: “over the long term, what will keep causing the price of oil to rise are the rapidly growing populations of countries like China, India and Brazil.” But don’t take his word for it, instead take a look at the graphic below (taken from The White House’s Energy Agenda page) and answer the following: do you see the Chinese reducing their demand for oil over the next 25 years? Neither do we.

“So what?” One might ask, “What does this have to do with our nation’s buildings?”
Well, in recognition of the ever increasing demands and associated cost projections associated with vehicle fuel, the United States has pursued two major strategic initiatives focused on consumer awareness and manufacturer efficiency.  The first, the national Miles per Gallon rating system informs consumers of the relative efficiency they can expect from their vehicle. Such industry transparency allows consumers to more accurately assess the value they derive from vehicle efficiency—the miles per gallon rating serves as a consumer alert mechanism. The second initiative focuses on raising the efficiency floor for all vehicles over the next 15 years, assuring some degree of protection against the continued oil price increases. The second measure assures fundamental industry transformation toward greater efficiency and innovation.
(from “Driving Efficiency: Cutting Costs for Families at the Pump and  Slashing Dependence on Oil” 2012)

Alright, alright, enough about the MPG and fuel efficiency standards, what does any of this have to do with buildings?
Well until recently, not much. But thanks to the ever increasing understanding that our existing building stock represents the single largest opportunity for cost, energy, and associated pollution savings in the United States—this is changing. The ever increasing role of green building practices and associated standards (like LEED) have shed new a light on areas of greatest need for improvement across the industry. It’s no coincidence that both improvements focus on the same mechanisms of consumer awareness and owner efficiency.


The Miles Per Gallon Rating System for Buildings

In the near future, many cities will have a widespread understanding of building’s energy performance located within their jurisdiction. In some places building benchmarking data will be publicly available, and in others it will be used to assess property values. In all cases, the development of building benchmarking standards will create a more transparent marketplace for all consumers.
While a widespread movement toward a national Miles Per Gallon rating system for our buildings is nascent, demand is growing. Though recent efforts by the EIA to update our national building database have been hampered by federal budget squabbling (Data Matters, The Importance of the Commercial Building Energy Consumption SurveyEIA Building Energy Data Studies Eliminated due to Congressional Cuts) others have taken the lead in the continued establishment of databases for high performance facilities:
Database for Analyzing Sustainable and High Performing Buildings:  Aims to develop a comprehensive national repository of building performance data; enable the consistent collection of quantitative data about green, sustainable, and high performance buildings; and facilitate reporting and analysis based on this data.
New Buildings Institute Database: NBI has compiled projects which have demonstrated or predicted performance that is 30% above the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) average for their building use type. Some buildings have also met or exceeded a level of 50 percent better than code requirement for energy use.
City Governments
New York City recently passed a law requiring all building over 50,000 square feet (representing no less than 22,000 facilities) “to disclose energy and water usage via the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s online Portfolio Manager tool. These data would be tied to the Department of Finance’s Tax Assessment Roll, where energy and water efficiency would become indicators used to assess property value.”
Comprehensive city wide building benchmarking efforts are underway in Seattle, Austin, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Federal Government
At the federal level President Obama issued Executive Order 13514: An order focused on improving the energy efficiency and public availability of data concerning the nation’s portfolio. Finally, similar efforts in Australia and the EU assign buildings grades based on relative energy efficiency.
Building benchmarking and assessment will drive consumer awareness and increase efficiency in parallel. Proactive owners will use benchmarking to improve performance and take advantage of them as planning and investment tools.  Consumers will be able to more accurately understand building investment decisions and potential issues or value derived from space rental.
Energy efficiency improvements are widely recognized as some of the best “low hanging fruit” that drive cost savings, improve building valuation, and reduce environmental impact. Building retrofits such as improvements in lighting, envelope and insulation, and additional HVAC controls are often both easily implemented and provide owners with immediate returns. In fact, most retrofits pay for themselves within two years of the initial investment.

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