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A skeptical Administration and Public Works Committee sought clarification in holding a proposed energy benchmarking ordinance on July 25. The ordinance, in the works for more than a year, would require private property owners to track energy and water use in buildings over time and report those findings to the City. Failure to do so would result in a fine.

Buildings would be required to use the Portfolio Manager software program, provided free by U.S E.P.A.’s Energy Star program, according to the staff memo. The largest building, more than 100,000 square feet, would be required to report energy usage by June 30, 2017. Smaller buildings would come online later, and by June 2019 all buildings larger than 20,000 square feet would be required to report benchmark data.

“Benchmarking is a beneficial and fiscally prudent practice for property owners interested in controlling costs, increasing building efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the staff memo in the Council packet. By requiring property owners to track energy uses, said Kumar Jensen, the City’s Environmental Project Coordinator, “annual energy usage drops by 7%.”

But Dan Schermerhorn, managing broker at Schermerhorn and Company, said, “Property owners know full well the cost of energy and ways to reduce those costs.” As for benchmarking, “we’ve been doing that for years,” he said. The ordinance would require property owners to “gather this data and send it to the City who will tell us what we already know,” he said. “Property owners are already keenly aware of the energy used. …  I don’t see the benefit of this mandatory benchmarking ordinance.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, appeared to agree. “I am searching for the value of what we’re trying to do,” he said, adding that he was particularly concerned by the penalty provisions in the ordinance. “Help me understand what we’re trying to do,” he asked Mr. Jensen.

Mr. Jensen said property owners and not individual tenants would be required to submit data to the City. Publicly reporting energy usage data would allow owners to compare energy usage at similarly situated buildings and find efficiencies. The ordinance would also require the City to “prepare and submit an annual report to the Mayor and City Council for review and evaluation of the energy and water efficiency in covered buildings. …”

“I agree with the end result – to reduce the carbon footprint,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. But she said she agreed with Mr. Schermerhorn in that “if you’re running a building, you are watching those numbers like a hawk. If you’re not, you are obviously very rich or very stupid.” As for the benchmarking ordinance, “I believe it will be a burden,” she said. “I want to know the information just like you do, but there’s got to be another way.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, suggested the City should incentivize building owners to use benchmarking tools, not punish those who do not. “What we really want is compliance,” she said.

“There are about 19 other municipalities” with benchmarking ordinances, said Mr. Jensen, most of which include a penalty or fine structure. “None of them have ever levied fines.” The City would provide resources, pro bono, for building owners to encourage and assist in implementation.

“We don’t want [an ordinance with] sanctions we’re not going to levy,” said Ald. Rainey.

Ald. Braithwaite moved to hold the measure for more information and tweaking. “I’d like to see the $50 fine removed,” he said. “Let’s understand what we do, but let’s see if we can do it without passing another ordinance,” he said. 

The City, as a provider of water, already knows how much water each of its customers uses. ComEd also keeps data comparing usage of its customers, and Alds. Rainey and Braithwaite both asked if the City could obtain that data from ComEd.

“I get [on my ComEd bill] the usage of myself and my neighbors, and I’m the worst,” said Ald. Rainey. “I like knowing I’m the worst.” If ComEd already collects and provides this data, there is no need to require building owners to collect and report it.

Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes, attending the meeting by teleconference while she recovers from knee surgery, asked the City to approach ComEd to see if they will release energy usage data. Mr. Jensen said they would not, but that the City would ask again.

For now, the benchmarking ordinance has been held in committee, and will come back with possible tweaks and perhaps an alternative method of accomplishing the same goal the ordinance seeks.