3 Jun 2015

Data and Transparency are Key to Atlanta’s Push for Building Efficiency Gains

Written by Jim Pierobon

Amid the legitimate news surviving the buzz around this year’s 45th Earth Day is a move by Atlanta to benchmark the energy performance of municipal and commercial buildings as part of a “comprehensive energy policy”.

I was about to gloss over the announcement until I caught how Atlanta, as one of 10 municipalities chosen to participate in the “City Energy Project” funded in part by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, said it will collect, assess and deploy data to complete an energy audit once every 10 years. But here’s the best part: building performance data not only will be collected but it will be shared for all to learn from.

Now this might not be considered news when one looks at what Michael Bloomberg achieved while Mayor of New York City; nor what San Francisco or Boston might have already accomplished with the help of their technology- and energy-savvy workforces. This is Atlanta, smack dab in the middle of the Southeast U.S. which as a region sorely lags behind the rest of the country in clean energy and efficiency initiatives.

With a unanimous vote of the 10-member Atlanta City Council, and with help from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, Atlanta takes aim at reducing energy consumption in municipal and commercial buildings 20 percent by 2030, slashing carbon emissions in half from 2013 levels by 2020 all while creating more than 1,000 jobs in the “first few years.”


Atlanta takes aim at reducing energy consumption in municipal and commercial buildings 20 percent by 2030, slashing carbon emissions in half from 2013 levels by 2040 all while creating more than 1,000 jobs in the “first few years.” CREDIT: City Energy Project

I’m a bit skeptical about that last claim, but the real movers behind this push – the city’s Sustainability Director Denise Quarles and Buildings Energy Efficiency Project Manager Matt Cox – document how this is a real deal. The main reason: Atlanta is the first city since the launch of the City Energy Project — which includes top-ten cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia — to formally move on all of four of its key elements: 1) benchmarking; 2) transparency and reporting; 3) energy audits; and 4) deployment of audit recommendations, according to Quarles.

Boston, which is also is a City Energy Project participant, had moved on all four elements before the Project’s formal launch.

“We’re pretty excited. What passed today is the result of intense stakeholder engagement with national and local leaders,” Quarles said in an interview.

Among the stakeholders were lobbyists for the Atlanta’s hotels and the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association. In posing numerous questions about the Project’s practicality and threatening the consensus commitment that is needed, moving forward without them was not an option if Quarles and Cox – backed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed – were to prevail.

Quarles acknowledged that achieving the ambitious energy and emissions reductions while creating at least 1,000 new jobs “comes with its challenges.” After a concept paper was introduced last December, Quarles said, all the necessary parties “were not always at the same ‘table’.”

Quarles and Cox recalled needing 165 separate meetings and substantive phone calls among more than 50 individuals representing various constituencies to pull this project across the finish line by this year’s Earth Day.

Enter the key role for data and making it transparent to all parties.

“When you get that information back (from the audits),” Quarles said, “it’s a pretty easy decision to make” to invest in systems and new equipment that ultimately will save building owners money.

Go here online for an illustration of how building energy data — in this case for Philadelphia –will be mapped to help guide efficiency upgrades for Atlanta and other cities participating in the City Energy Project.

Atlanta’s Commercial Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance applies to private and City-owned buildings over 25,000 square feet in size. There are 2,350 of them and they represent 80 percent of the city’s commercial sector. Participating buildings will be phased in, led by municipal buildings this year and expanding to private buildings in 2016. As the largest owner, the City itself will need to lead by example or this initiative could fall flat fast.

Contractors such as Johnson Controls, Schneider Electric and Siemens will likely compete to perform the energy audits, as will the resident monopoly electric utility, Georgia Power. But the audits and related work will require full-time commitments from qualified professionals. Most of those jobs don’t exist now.

The ordinance establishing the City’s first energy policy was custom-fitted for Atlanta because it drew on best practices of other cities and were refined them to meet Atlanta’s needs, according to Melissa Wright, Director of the City Energy Project at NRDC. And therein lies the potential for other municipalities: With the mountains of data that will be made available, other cities can learn what efficiency upgrades and renovation investments can work best for them, they conditions they deal with and the climates they exist in.

Orlando is the only other city in the Southeast U.S. that is a part of the City Energy Project.

The building sector is the single largest category of energy users in the United States, accounting for roughly 40 percent of total energy consumption. In cities, however, that figure can be even higher: 60, 70, even 75 percent, and much of that energy is wasted, according to NRDC and the Institute.

The City Energy Project also is funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.

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