Energy and water benchmarking is a simple concept that can mean very different things to different people. For some, the phrase conjures a burdensome and impractical requirement – especially the collection of resident utility data where providers don’t make it easy. For others, benchmarking seems like an almost magical catalyst that can unleash a future of high performance, low-carbon buildings. The reality includes both. But whatever your perspective, it’s safe to say that in the last decade benchmarking has gone from “cutting edge” to a mainstream practice of the multifamily real estate world. Still, we’re just getting started.
Launching EnergyScoreCards platform in 2009, Bright Power has been a leader in multifamily benchmarking for some time, continuing to work with visionary real estate companies, publish research and share best practices ever since. In this post, I draw on that experience to shed light on this rapidly evolving real estate practice and answer common questions.
Who is Benchmarking?
By summer 2017, 18 cities and one state now require multifamily buildings over a certain size to benchmark, and sometimes publicly disclose energy and often water consumption (Source: http://www.buildingrating.org). That’s big, and between California’s requirement taking effect next year, the expansion of the NYC law to include buildings 25k – 50k SF and HUD’s new benchmarking rule in development, the number of properties benchmarking annually is set to increase dramatically in the next year. To give a sense of scale, in terms of square footage and CO2 emissions, covered multifamily buildings in NYC alone represent 1.5 Billion square feet and 7.5 million megatons emitted annually CO2. In Chicago it’s 260 million square feet, emitting 1.9 million megatons of CO2, Seattle has 100 million square feet of benchmarking multifamily buildings, Boston 66 million, Philly 5.4 million square feet – and the list goes on.
These numbers, understate the total multifamily properties that benchmark their energy and water consumption, since many do it voluntarily – including the 112 of the 345 partner organizations (that is portfolios, not buildings) that have signed up for the Better Buildings Challenge, or a number of 250 members of the Global ESG Benchmark for Real Estate (GRESB), an investor-led sustainability reporting framework, which includes some of the country’s largest multifamily owners and managers. In other cases, lenders like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or housing agencies like NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (NYCHPD) or the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) require that borrowers, or at least those accessing green programs, benchmark their energy consumption, adding to the number of participating owners.
While benchmarking policies undoubtedly include some owners who have been reluctant and may do as little as possible to avoid a fine, the success of voluntary programs shows that leading multifamily owners are now doing it on their own accord; they’ve reached the conclusion that benchmarking provides real business benefits and is necessary to proactively manage their properties and stay competitive.
How Does It Work and Where Do I Start?
Utility bill-based benchmarking rarely requires any new hardware to be installed to collect consumption data, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. While even just getting owner-paid data for a large portfolio can require collecting at least 12 months of historical data for hundreds or thousands of utility accounts, the real elephant in the room for multifamily properties is tenant data, which is needed in one form or another to assess whole building consumption and spending, usually required for compliance with local laws. Some utilities have made it easier by providing aggregate whole building data and integrating with ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, meaning owners may comply with the laws without having to manually type in utility data, or pay a service provider to retrieve and transfer it.
For other utilities, however, getting tenant data requires the laborious process of getting individual authorizations from residents and then collecting data from the utility, often extrapolating a whole building estimate from a (hopefully) representative sample. Even when working with utilities that integrate with Portfolio Manager and provide whole building data, a building owner still must set up the connection to Portfolio Manager (which often involves some amount of troubleshooting), and collect and enter property information (including square footage, units, bedrooms, information on commercial spaces, etc.). Fortunately, the EPA posts a searchable list of the utilities that offer automatic data integration, HUD has created a helpful benchmarking toolkit, and many cities with benchmarking requirements also provide a benchmarking hotline or other resources to help with compliance.
While some building owners have the time and interest to take on benchmarking DIY, most prefer to seek assistance from specialized software or service providers to collect, curate, clean and analyze the data. The good news is there are now several options for getting help, including:
- Signing up for a multifamily benchmarking service such as Bright Power’s EnergyScoreCards service (which for full disclosure I helped create and oversee) or WegoWise.
- Utilizing a bill aggregator or bill-pay service to transfer data to Portfolio Manager such as Ecova, AUM, NWP, Conservice; or others.
- Using a more broadly-focused sustainability reporting services like Goby or Measurabl, which may include integration with Portfolio Manager.
If you need to or want to benchmark and you don’t want to go it alone, there are many companies now ready to assist, some of which have now been running for years, gaining in experience and capability, offering better service and value. Given a range of different offerings, getting an apples-to-apples comparison between providers is critical.
What Can I Do With Benchmarking Data?
Too many conversations about benchmarking begin and end with talking about data. Insight and action are the goals – not just data collection. No one ever saved a kWh or made a building better just by staring at numbers on a screen – no matter how quickly they arrived there or how engagingly they were presented. Translating data into insight and action can be done in dozens of ways, from peer comparisons to identifying candidates for building upgrades, to watching trends and tracking progress toward goals, to measuring the impact of specific energy and water saving projects. Unfortunately, benchmarking laws, and even some benchmarking data services, seem to trust that once building owners collect the data, getting value from it will just happen automatically.
At Bright Power, we’ve seen that while a few owners are adept at translating data into action, most need help from an expert. There are a dizzying number of possible ways to slice and dice and crunch utility data, so performing the right analysis to answer your questions, and then knowing what to do with the answers is difficult. Even simply comparing energy usage between two properties to see which is more efficient is not a simple task: Given differences in geographies, building and equipment types, ages, different metering configurations and other factors, a reasonable expectation for consumption varies from property to property. Buildings are complicated and a meaningful peer comparison is a complex and evolving field (see our recent blogs and whitepaper on the EnergyScoreCards grading model). Providing analysis and insights from data is really the driver of success for real estate companies.
Insight and action are the goals – not just data collection. No one ever saved a kWh or made a building better just by staring at numbers on a screen.
There are no one-size-fits-all answers on how to use energy and water data, but one long-term Bright Power client may spark ideas for how to use benchmarking in your own portfolio. This client, a large portfolio spanning 23 states, began benchmarking several years ago as the key to satisfy GRESB reporting requirements and show their investors they take sustainability seriously. In the last few years, our Energy Analyst and Account Management teams used property spending and consumption data from EnergyScoreCards to identify the sites with the greatest potential for energy and water savings, and target those that could benefit from specific technologies like lighting upgrades or combined heat and power.
We then overlaid project feasibility and savings potential with eligibility for utility and state incentive programs across the country, and identified sites that could receive the largest subsidies for new equipment or more detailed energy audits. Using this strategic, data-driven approach, our engineering and installation teams completed 19 energy audits and over 30 installation projects ranging from common area LED lighting retrofits, to comprehensive whole-building energy and water upgrades, to combined heat and power (CHP) installations. Where work has already been completed, we are tracking month-to-month consumption to ensure expected savings materialize, and the owner can rest assured that we are ready to troubleshoot if things don’t go as planned.
In 2007, Bright Power collected data the old-fashioned way and performed a lot of our analysis using spreadsheets. There were no benchmarking disclosure laws and no national multifamily score from ENERGY STAR. There were bill processing companies but few if any who had meaningful analytics for multifamily. Multifamily benchmarking has come a long way in the last 10 years. If current trends continue, we can count on benchmarking to grow as a practice among real estate owners, and the process continuing to get easier, as more utilities provide whole building data and more service providers hone their methods for capturing, storing and analyzing the data. More owners will also successfully follow their own version of the process described above, moving beyond data collection to use the information to drive significant portfolio-wide projects to save energy and water, cut operating costs, improve resident comfort, access millions of dollars in incentives and improve the value and longevity of their properties.
The next big frontier in multifamily energy and water data may dive deeper into the data, looking at interval or “real-time” information that tracks consumption on a daily, hourly, or even 15-minute basis, allowing owners to more quickly catch problems and enabling a much deeper level of analysis than possible from monthly utility bills.
Many companies are working on devices and platforms to capture and analyze this type of data, although most remain rather expensive for the typical multifamily building. This more granular data may already make sense for applications like catching leaks, monitoring large HVAC systems, or participating in demand response programs with onsite generation technologies like CHP and batteries. Sometimes, this data is already available from new utility smart meters; in others, it will require installation of new hardware, but the costs appear to keep coming down and capabilities expanding. Really, if you’re interested in understanding how multifamily buildings use energy and water – things are just getting interesting.
Thanks to Apollo Engineering for featuring Jon’s article in their Summer 2017 Watts Hot Newsletter.