A free toolkit has been published to help local governments, utilities and other building industry players replicate the success of some US cities in leveraging smart data to make buildings more efficient and pleasant for occupants, while bringing further benefits for energy efficiency service providers, utilities and building owners.

Any city authority knows that merely having a benchmarking or audit policy, and the data that such a policy supplies, is not enough to build a robust retrofit market. What is vital is that the collected data is actively and appropriately deployed.

To meet the 1.5°C climate challenge, demand for efficiency needs to rise to a point where building owners upgrade the efficiency of their buildings as a business as usual practice. They need to be able to easily access skilled, qualified service providers to identify optimal efficiency opportunities and implement the retrofits. City governments (at least in the US) are the powers with the incentive and motivation to take this on.

The new report, Putting Data to Work: How Cities are Using Building Energy Data to Drive Efficiency, and a linked toolkit Putting Data to Work, have been crafted by the Institute for Market Transformation – a US not-for-profit organisation aiming to increase energy efficiency in buildings – and its partners in order to enable local governments, utilities and program implementers to learn from the experience of the District of Columbia and New York City.

Any jurisdiction that collects similar information for benchmarking and building performance transparency purposes can adopt and adapt the best practices developed by these authorities using the report and toolkit, which is the result of a three-year pilot.

Energy utilities – including investor-owned, municipal or cooperative retail entities – can also use another part of the toolkit that explains how to use the development of building performance policies or programs by cities as an opportunity for innovation.

Data engineering

The report first describes the types of data that voluntary or mandatory city building performance programs create. It summarises several novel ways to use this data and their potential value to utilities, plus actions that utilities can take internally to realise these benefits.

Another section of the toolkit supports making the financial case for energy efficiency upgrades by leveraging the modelling and development of New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation’s (NYCEEC) efficienSEE tool. The tool was developed by New York City as part of its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 – since its buildings account for nearly 70 per cent of them. The tool is supplemented by examples.

There’s even a script and step-by-step guidance for energy efficiency program implementers for use in persuading customers to undertake energy efficiency projects.

Data benchmarking

City government sustainability leaders can help to create local markets for energy-efficient buildings by adopting building performance reporting laws or benchmarking and transparency policies to require the reporting and publication of annual building energy and water use data. This is documented to encourage smarter business decisions, track return on investment and increase energy savings.

The District of Columbia used building performance benchmarking data to inform its Clean Energy DC plan. The data was gathered as part of city policies declared in a 2012 Sustainable DC plan to make the region “the healthiest, greenest, most liveable city in the nation”. The plan recently acquired a target for the district to be carbon neutral by 2050.

As part of the roadmap to achieve this target, in order to track energy consumption in the built environment, the district uses its Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008. This requires owners of large, privately owned commercial and multifamily buildings over 50,000 square feet  (4645 square metres) and all district government buildings over 10,000 square feet (929 sq m) to benchmark energy and water consumption. To do so they use the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool. They must report this information annually to the District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment.

The Institute for Market Transformation examined how this data was and can be deployed to reap an array of benefits for cities, energy efficiency service providers, utilities and building owners.

The resulting toolkit and associated resources will support other local governments, utilities and program implementers to replicate DC’s and New York City’s success – engaging the private sector to maximise energy and greenhouse gas savings from their built environments.

City government sustainability leaders might want to use this report to understand how cities use the data collected through building energy ordinances. It includes strategies for improving data quality, translating data into actionable information for the private sector, communicating information in a way that motivates action and drives retrofits, and incorporating data into local climate and energy planning.

Real world data

The benchmarking data was used to develop the model and analysis for the recommendations and estimated savings in the Clean Energy DC plan. This allowed the modelling to directly reflect actual building characteristics and energy consumption within the district, rather than relying on assumptions or national-level data, creating a more accurate representation of the expected energy and GHG impact of various recommended actions.

Local authorities aiming to replicate this should identify comparable datasets for their local building stock and use district-specific end-user information assumptions for each building type, according to the toolkit. They would then multiply these out across the total square footage for that building type in their district. They would compare the result to top-down data from the utility companies and adjust it where it doesn’t fit.

The Columbia project was limited to whole-building data analysis. A lesson learnt was that the addition of data from building energy audits would provide system-level information and additional detail on building characteristics. This would have greatly improved the detail of the model.

However energy and water benchmarking data was incorporated into the customer outreach process.

Other US cities that have incorporated energy benchmarking data into their comprehensive energy planning include New York City’s Roadmap to 80×50 (published in September 2016, and including strategies in energy, buildings, transportation and waste) and Seattle’s Climate Action Plan Implementation Strategy (published in October 2013, and including actions in transportation and land use, building energy, waste and preparing for climate change).

Lessons learnt

Authorities wishing to adopt a similar strategy should note the following advice from the report: that high-quality data are important, and planning and target setting should be informed by local (not national) data. The criteria for the proposed actions need to be clear, including the nature of the driving target – energy, greenhouse gas emission reduction. And it must be clear how progress will be measured and whose participation will be critical in achieving progress.

A city’s final strategy should take into account actions already underway that can be further implemented or leveraged, what other cities are doing, and above all the economic implications of actions being taken. A draft plan is then updated and modified as needed during and following the public stakeholder feedback process. In Washington DC’s case this is scheduled to be completed in early 2018.

David Thorpe’s two new books are Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Solar Energy Pocket Reference.  He’s also the author of Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.