Is It Really Unfair For US Cities To Require Building Energy Benchmarking?

Posted by Dalkia Solutions on Apr 15, 2013 7:46:44 AM

Harvard economist Robert Stavins recently published a study assessing the impact when US cities require their real estate owners to perform periodic energy analysis on their buildings.  As Boston considers passing its own energy benchmarking ordinance, Stavin studied other existing programs and concluded “there is currently no real evidence that these mandatory programs lead to any changes whatsoever in energy use.’’

Then we read the fine print.  The study, funded by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, was neither peer reviewed nor academically published.  Uh boy.

So let’s take a step back and consider the following timeframes:

NYC’s and San Francisco’s energy benchmarking programs only went live requiring reporting a year ago.  Seattle, PhiladelphiaAustin started since then and Washington DC and Minneapolis just launched in the last few months.  (Which means Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission is actually late to the party in pushing to get this new policy passed.)

To convince a building owner to implement an energy efficiency upgrade takes our team an average of twelve months.  Then we install the project a few months later.  Then the savings need to materialize and be measured.  A utility study which independently measured results could probably be delivered a year after that – then it could given to Professor Stavin’s team so they could draw their own conclusions.

Get the picture?  It takes at least a few years for this sort of adoption to be fully measurable.

The report also asserts that similar programs in Europe have no academic studies validating such a policy’s impact.

But while many countries are implementing their own programs, like the US, most of these have also developed in the last few years.  It may have been better to analyze the adoption in Australia, whose benchmarking ordinances were initially introduced in 1998, likely making it the world’s longest standing program?   And back here in the US there are studies which counter his “too early to tell” opinion – check out the Georgia Tech study, the California PUC study or the Facilities Manager review.

Pushing it further, Larry Harman’s Boston Globe editorial suggested that the new policy would “aggravate” Boston’s real estate owners.  He opined that the policy of forcing expensive energy audits for buildings that are generally older than the rest of the country, with fines for non-compliance, would just be unfair.

Oh please.

Yes, Boston’s built environment may be old, but in real estate reducing a building’s operating costs adds directly to the property’s income, which increases the value of that property.  Massachusetts has some of the highest energy rates in the country and ranks number three (behind CA and NY) in providing tax-payer funded energy efficiency incentives.  In our experience in doing work across the country the financial return for upgrading older buildings in Boston is probably one of the best in the US.

You can’t catalyze energy efficiency change if you don’t first measure and report energy consumption.  Building energy benchmarking is only a first step, but it can change consumer psychology through new awareness, which in turn can drive behavior change and investment in energy efficiency.  You either want to drive it or you don’t – which is the question Boston legislators can vote on next…

Economist’s normally search for the social drivers.  Stavin’s colleagues down the hall in HBS’s Marketing department must have already analyzed the now famous Oberlin college dorm research study where dorm residents, given their own energy usage information, competed to reduce their consumption.  And the consumer research which confirms the reduction impact when consumers are told how much energy they consume relative to their neighbors. Putting a ranking on a commercial building is the same bet.  Australia’s NABERS system uses a one to five gold star rating and Energy Star uses scores from 1 to 100 – but either way, it gets the simple point across – you’re doing well or you’re not.

But Stavin comes at it from an economist’s viewpoint, not a consumer behavior angle – so let’s stick to the business and the financial implications.

So let’s consider a 250,000 square foot office building in Boston.

At an average value of $250 per foot, the building would be worth @ $62.5 million.  Its annual real estate taxes might be $2 million, common area maintenance costs $2.5 million and utilities $1 million.  Let’s assume the owners have @ 50% leverage and expect to make 15% on their equity or $4.7 million in earnings per year.

Running an Energy Star Portfolio Manager model on this building might cost $2k.  A full blown energy assessment (likely subsidized for 50% of its cost by the utility) might be another $5 – $10k.  (btw – energy audit costs are only going down, as we now see a number of new startups focused on providing high volume, low-cost energy audit tools.)

So over a five year period, if the owner runs an Energy Star model every year and performs one energy assessment, the added cost for Boston’s energy benchmarking ordinance would be approximately $15 – 20k.

A typical energy assessment for this sized building might identify HVAC and lighting upgrades which save 15% of the building’s utility costs ($150k).  The investment would be $450k, but the utility would support a third of the project’s cost, producing a two-year payback on the owner’s net $300k investment.  The study would likely  identify no-cost behavior changes that save another 3% of the building’s energy costs ($30k).

Post the energy efficiency upgrade and behavior change savings the building now earns $4.9 million and is worth $2.4 million more using a Boston Class A cap rate of 7.5%.  (Income taxes would also reduced using Federal EPAct accelerated depreciation, but that’s icing on the cake.)

So let’s recap:

Boston implements a new real estate policy and this owner is forced to spend @ $20k over five years to comply.

If the owner decides to invest nothing, the energy assessment alone will likely show a way to save $30k per year.

If the owner decides to invest in upgrades, the $320k investment over five years will add $180k in operating income each year, and increases the property’s value by over $ 2 million whenever they sell the building.

When you consider typical government compliance policies, does this one really seem that unfair?

Topics: Energy Efficiency, Energy Benchmarking