In furtherance of the City’s sustainability goals, City Council has approved an ordinance that requires owners of certain-size buildings to track, report, and verify their water and energy use. The ordinance, approved at the Dec. 12 City Council meeting, covers 557 buildings with a total aggregate of more than 45 billion square feet.

By June 30 of next year, owners of buildings of 100,000 square feet or more must submit to the City Manager verified reports of how much water and energy they used during the previous year. The City must submit similar reports on all its buildings greater than 10,000 square feet – such as the Main Library, the Morton Civic Center, and community centers.

Smaller buildings will be phased in over the next two years, with reporting dates of June 30, 2018, for buildings of 50,000-99,999 square feet and June 30, 2019, for buildings of 20,000-49,999 square feet.

Those reporting the information will have access to the Energy Star Portfolio Manager, a free online benchmarking tool developed and maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A memo from Evanston Environmental Project Coordinator Kumar Jensen and Public Works Director Dave Stoneback summarized the history of and rationale for the ordinance as it was shaped by City staff and input from local building owners.

Some Background

Since 2008, according to the memo, the community “has seen about an 18% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, largely attributable to securing 100% green power through the Community Choice Aggregation contracts. In 2015, gas and electric usage in Evanston buildings accounted for more than 75% of community-wide greenhouse gas emissions.”

Other communities that have benchmarked energy and water usage have seen reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The memo cited a report published by New York City that said that between 2010 and 2013, “emissions from 3,000 consistently benchmarked properties dropped by 8%, while energy use decreased by 6%. This is a noteworthy reduction since the City’s 2007 Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions, had projected that New York City emissions would increase by 27% by 2030 in a business-as-usual scenario.”

A similar analysis of 35,000 buildings that used the Energy Star Portfolio Manager, which will be used here to track energy-use here, found that between 2008 and 2011 saved an average of 7% energy, resulting in decreased operating expenses and lowered greenhouse gas emissions.

The ordinance was introduced at the Sept. 26, 2016, City Council meeting and tabled until Nov. 28 to allow for more community notice, engagement and input. In partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council Illinois Chapter and the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, the City offered a workshop for building owners to learn about the ordinance and how to comply with it. There were also three drop-in informational meetings.

One change from the ordinance as a result of the feedback was the removal of 144 smaller condominium buildings – those between 20,000 and 49,000 square feet – from coverage.

Both the pro and the con were represented by remarks during the citizen comment period of the meeting.

John Lambrecht of the Building Managers and Owners Association (BOMA), said among the association’s concerns is the mandate to gather tenants’ data. “Verification could add to building owners’ costs.”

Dan Schermerhorn, who owns and manages several buildings in Evanston and said he was representing other property owners as well, said, “I don’t think energy benchmarking is what we do to conserve energy – because we’ve done this. Any property owner who is worth his salt is already looking at costs and how to save energy. Energy benchmarking is not going to change the way they operate. We’re also concerned about what will be done with the data once it’s collected. Are you going to tax buildings that are not doing well?” He also said he manages some “vintage” buildings, and “there is little you can do with them.”

Resident Leslie Shad urged the Council to approve the ordinance, saying. “What we’re talking about is the most modest behavioral change.”

Steve Kismore, who has worked with the Midwest Energy and Efficiency Alliance, said benchmarking is simple: “You look at your utility bills and understand how to read them.” Local architect Nate Kipnis of Citizens Greener Evanston, who  helped with Chicago’s benchmarking ordinance, supported the ordinance.

Jonathan Nieuwsma of Citizens Greener Evanston (CGE) thanked the City for the 2008 Climate Action Plan and the 2012 Livability Plan and said, “With no action forthcoming at the federal level in the next four years, it is imperative to act at the local level.”

Richard Lanyon, former Eighth Ward Alderman and current member of the Utilities Commission, said, “To me, this is a must-do. Property owners may have to be helped. We have an opportunity to learn and to teach people who could use help.”

Council Comment

The aldermen debated the concerns expressed by the property owners and the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, some expressing support for the ordinance, others temporarily siding with the property owners until it was time to vote.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “I think we have all struggled with this. … I wonder to myself, ‘Is it really going to have any noticeable effect?’ … I also have great reservations about how it would work for a number of people in the community, most notably the apartment buildings.”

Ald. Wilson also said he has heard from some people who think the City is “nickel-and-diming” them, not just with money but with their time. “It gives me pause to see a penalty attached to the ordinance. I would like to see it available to anyone who wants to try it. … I have tried to listen carefully and see. I don’t really like it but am willing to give it a try.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “My concern is the carrot-and-stick. We’re making it really tough for some people in the community.” She said she held a ward meeting on the issue. About 20 people attended, she said, “and no one was in favor of it.”

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he was concerned about the ordinance from the beginning because of the [fine]. From the feedback I’ve received, I think a lot of businesses are already reducing their expenses.”

“I’m pleased that the large buildings are reporting first,” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward. She said that would give the owners of smaller buildings a chance to see how things unfold.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, appeared to agree saying, “Dividing buildings into tiers is a much better decision.” Both she and Ald. Fiske said they hoped the buildings’ owners would accept help from volunteers with Citizens Greener Evanston.

“All you need is one account for the entire building,” said Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle, “then the City and Nicor and ComEd will do the rest. This is something I think is going to be useful in building management for common areas and other parts of a building – such as heated garages and lawn-sprinklers.” She said she believes there will be volunteers not only from Citizens Greener Evanston but also from the U.S. Energy Efficiency Alliance. “CGE members are eager to be trained to help.” Referring to Ald. Fiske’s remark, she said, “Sometimes you really do need not the carrot but the stick to get people to do what they really need to do.”

The ordinance was approved 7-2 with Alds. Fiske and Braithwaite casting the “no” votes.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...