For Shame: Chicago Will 'Out' Energy Hogs To Drive Reductions


Which would you pick as your place of residence or business: the nice, energy efficient building, or the energy sink with a giant scarlet letter E on its side?

Chicago wants to start using such public shaming—more properly known as energy benchmarking—as a way to reduce energy usage in its biggest buildings. The city council passed an ordinance this week that will require operators of the 3500 or so buildings in the city with more than 4600 square meters (50 000 square feet) of floor space to track and verify energy consumption and report it directly to the city.

“Do you check the mileage before you purchase a car?," Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked in a Chicago Tribune article. "Do you check the energy-efficiency of a utility before you purchase it? Do you do comparative? What is wrong with providing people information?” Emanuel reasoned.

Opponents of the measure have said it would discriminate against older buildings, but that's kind of the point: Chicago wants to cut energy use by 30 percent by 2020 in half its buildings. And those older ones are the most likely energy hogs.

The measure includes a delay in the start of reporting in order to give building owners a chance to improve; any residential building between 4600 square meters and 23 225 square meters will first begin reporting in June 2016. Building energy use will be tracked using an online tool administered by the Environmental Protection Agency known as Portfolio Manager; apparently, buildings that use the tool reduce energy needs by an average of 7 percent. In the press release announcing the ordinance, the city claims that if the buildings covered by the measure save only 5 percent each, the result would be a savings of $250 million and an emissions reduction equivalent to taking 50 000 cars off the road.

This scarlet-letter route is catching on, with Chicago being only the latest to join in. Philadelphia passed a similar law in summer 2012, and the first compliance deadline is approaching this October. Washington, D.C., was out in front with a bill passed in 2008; the first reporting deadline arrived in April of this year. New York, San Francisco, and Boston, also have benchmarking regulations in place.

The interesting thing about this plan is that there isn't any particular idea for improving energy use contained within the laws. They're just intended to get people embarrassed enough to do something to improve. Of course, possibilities for upping the efficiency of buildings abound—including some of the provisions included in the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill currently being debated in Congress—so maybe just the prospect of having bottom-of-the-barrel status once reporting begins is enough.

And though the laws only look to big buildings, there is plenty of opportunity even among those: the Tribune notes that though only 1 percent of Chicago's buildings will be covered under the ordinance, they account for 22 percent of the city's total building-related energy use. And more generally, buildings certainly are energy guzzlers: commercial, industrial, and residential buildings in the U.S. accounted for 7 percent of the world's total energy consumption in 2010. Just in the United States, buildings accounted for 41 percent of all the energy we use, ahead of transportation and industry.

No one wants that big red E on their building; we'll see if benchmarking really ends up making a dent in our energy use.


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