Sharing Transparency for a More Efficient Future

Gaining Steam but Falling Short: Voluntary Building Energy Rating Competitions in the U.S.

In addition to the array of governmental mandates we highlight in our policy resources, there is a growing number of voluntary rating programs that are having an impact in the US. While research has shown that voluntary programs are insufficient at changing the market dynamics of a locality, they can serve to spread the word about efficient buildings and are a good piece in a more comprehensive policy program.

According to the EPA there are 20 incentive and campaign programs currently in use at the local level in the US. The most popular form of such initiatives is a competition involving a comparison of Portfolio Manager efficiency scores. Localities challenge commercial buildings to rate their energy and water use with EPA’s free Portfolio Manager tool and reward the greenest properties.

Perhaps best popularized by Seattle's Kilowatt Crackdown, competitions exist in 14 other states, cities and counties to date. Programs are common across geographies in metropolises, regions and hamlets alike. You can find them in Albuquerque, Chicago, Central Florida and Westchester, NY.

More enforceable programs generally produce more substanial savings, both economic and environmental, but some places have shown some pretty impressive results. A rating competition in Decatur, GA, outside of Atlanta, recently challenged residential neighborhoods to compete in energy savings totals. Participants used the free online tool, EarthAid, to track their progress. Overall, the town saw a 1.5% reduction in residential electricity usage and an average household savings of $15 per month. The winning neighborhood reduced its electricity consumption by 20%! Unsurprisingly, larger Kilowatt Crackdowns have proportionately scaled savings. Seattle’s competition for commercial buildings saved the equivalent energy output of 1,000 homes or 700,000 gallons of gasoline.

The standardization of these programs, even through branding (the communities of Central Florida and Louisville also have Kilowatt Crackdowns), has the potential to make them more recognizable, more mainstream, and more palatable. Portfolio Manager has become a national standard for tracking energy and water use for commercial and multi-family buildings; perhaps Earth Aid will rise to the occasion for sigle-family homes.

Success so far has been admirable, but not game-changing. Participation can be sparse and progress is often made by existing leaders. The most successful cities are looking beyond the competition model for utility bill savings.

To get buy-in from all segments of the market, more comprehensive incentives and policies are needed. Some places have turned to mandatory benchmarking, but that is only one of many ways to save building owners energy and money.