Multifamily benchmarking can save energy — with the right support

Blog | September 13, 2017 - 11:42 am
By Stefen Samarripas, Research Analyst, Local Policy

Many cities have started benchmarking initiatives to reduce citywide energy consumption. This could be good news for people living in apartments and condominiums, because many are renters and low-income residents who would benefit from lower energy bills. Low-income families can struggle to find affordable and energy-efficient homes. The apartments they rent are often in need of repairs, have older appliances, and operate with less-efficient heating and cooling equipment, which partly explains their higher energy bills. On average, low-income multifamily residents spend 5% of their income on utility bills, which is more than triple what other households spend. Improving the energy efficiency of multifamily buildings can be an effective strategy for reducing these high energy burdens.

We’re beginning to see exactly how benchmarking initiatives can improve the energy efficiency of multifamily properties. Benchmarking provides building owners and tenants with information on how their buildings’ energy consumption compares to that of similar buildings. This knowledge allows owners to identify and prioritize potential investments in energy-saving equipment and operational changes. Our new local policy toolkit item, Benefits of Benchmarking Initiatives in the Multifamily Market, reviews the existing research on how these initiatives can facilitate energy efficiency investments.

City-led initiatives to support benchmarking

Several trends are contributing to the uptick in benchmarking of multifamily properties. Voluntary programs are widespread, but an increasing number of cities are requiring benchmarking. Eighteen cities now require owners of multifamily buildings to benchmark their energy use. With mandatory ordinances, cities require owners to benchmark their buildings and make the results accessible to the public. Online portals, such as the one hosted by Elevate Energy in Chicago, allow the public to easily compare the energy performance of large buildings. 

When adopting mandatory ordinances or voluntary initiatives, cities must engage many community stakeholders and address the availability of whole-building energy use data for multifamily owners. Property owners need access to these data to participate in benchmarking, but many utility companies do not currently provide this information. It can be difficult and time consuming for owners to collect energy data for an entire building without utility support because they must secure each tenant’s authorization to access his or her energy data.

Fortunately, several utilities are addressing this concern and adopting standard practices for providing anonymized aggregate tenant data to building owners. Here are the paths that three cities have taken in working with utilities to make these data available:

Timeline sources: Philly | Salt Lake City | Washington, DC

Energy efficiency outcomes

Increasing evidence suggests that benchmarking can lead to substantial energy and cost savings within multifamily buildings. A recent national study of more than 50,000 multifamily buildings found that benchmarking and support services could save 4% of energy and water use in a building after one year. Those that pursue a retrofit can save double that amount.

While benchmarking increases owners’ or managers’ awareness of their building’s energy use, this increased awareness does not necessarily lead to energy savings. Cities, utilities, and community organizations must provide additional support to reduce the energy waste of apartments and condos. In addition to helping owners collect and report detailed whole-building energy data, our research has found that the most effective benchmarking initiatives provide:

  • Full-time staff to help owners understand and use their energy data
  • Low- or no-cost energy audits to identify potential efficiency upgrades
  • Assistance with securing financing or other forms of funding for retrofits

Kansas City’s Clean Energy Resource Center provides an example of how city stakeholders can collaborate to provide such support. The community’s two major local utilities – Kansas City Power and Light and Laclede Gas – fund the work of the center with space and staff provided by area nonprofits. Center staff offer one-on-one training for building operators, commission building energy audits, identify financing for retrofit projects, and verify projects’ energy savings. While these no-cost services are helpful for the entire multifamily sector, they are especially critical for affordable multifamily properties that want to reduce energy use but have limited funding for efficiency projects.

Resources for cities

The growing number of cities facilitating the tracking and transparency of energy data in multifamily buildings can serve as models for other cities. In addition to the examples in our new toolkit, ACEEE recently highlighted several cities with multifamily benchmarking initiatives in our 2017 Energy Efficiency Scorecard. As more cities implement community-wide energy-savings and climate goals, they should view benchmarking as a low-cost strategy for engaging multifamily building owners in achieving community-wide energy-savings and climate goals.

Hannah Bastian contributed to this post.