Hurricane Harvey brought record rainfall and flooding to the Houston-Galveston region. The impacts of the storm and ensuing flooding included loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. In response, researchers from the region with expertise in hydrology, climate science, engineering, coastal resiliency, energy, community development and urban planning came together to strategize on solutions.
Texas ranks first among the states as the biggest commercial and residential energy consumer and is outpaced by only other five states per-capita energy consumption, according to federal statistics.
At the same time, state policies and programs for energy efficiency receive just middling grades from a leading analyst of such efforts. The nonprofit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s 2014 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard gave Texas a score of 13 out of a possible 50 points, which put it in 34th place among the states.
HARC is now poised to help advance energy efficiency in Texas through its leadership of a new initiative to help municipal governments – and ultimately, it’s hoped, private businesses and others – to save energy in building operations, reducing related costs and pollution along the way.
The two-year project, just getting started, is federally funded through Texas’ State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) and aims to establish a program to encourage and enable wider voluntary adoption of a set of energy-efficiency tools known collectively as benchmarking and disclosure. To carry out this effort, HARC is partnering with another nonprofit, the South Central Partnership for Energy Efficiency as a Resource, or SPEER.
A principal aim, according to a SECO report, is to reduce costs associated with benchmarking and disclosure, which essentially involves tracking and analyzing a building’s energy use and comparing it to other buildings (benchmarking) and revealing the findings to facilitate broader comparisons (disclosure).
The benefits can be substantial, according to SECO-cited findings by federal agencies and other researchers:
- According to the Environmental Protection Agency, benchmarking and disclosure alone can result in a seven percent cut in energy use over three years.
- The Department of Energy says about 60 percent of those who participate in benchmarking and disclosure efforts subsequently adopt even more energy-efficiency actions later.
- City government programs that introduce “internal green building practices,” such as benchmarking and disclosure, can help influence the private sector to adopt similar practices, according to a 2014 study of 591 cities by a pair of academic researchers.
Jennifer Ronk, HARC’s program director for environmental science and energy efficiency, believes that by helping city officials implement benchmarking and disclosure in city-owned buildings, the project can help spread the practice beyond municipal operations.
“We’re hoping that as cities lead by example, more and more building managers will become interested in doing this on their own, privately-owned buildings,” Ronk said.
The initial focus of the project will be on helping local governments with their own benchmarking and disclosure programs.
“Benchmarking and disclosure in the state of Texas is still in the beginning stages,” according to the SECO report. “Presently, there is not a statewide program for benchmarking and disclosure for the public and private sector,” the report added, noting that “the most significant progress” so far has been made by the city of Austin.
To support that city’s Climate Protection Plan, adopted in 2007 to reduce climate-disrupting carbon dioxide emissions, Austin’s City Council approved the Energy Conservation and Disclosure ordinance in 2008. It requires energy benchmarking by commercial buildings that receive electricity from the city-owned Austin Energy.
Besides Austin, Texas’ other five largest cities – Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth and El Paso – have all started benchmarking and disclosure programs for their own operations.
“All are in various stages of development with most having benchmarked most of their facilities, but the step toward disclosing this data for public consumption, as well as using the data to drive decision making, is still very limited,” the SECO report said.
The state’s mid-size cities are doing less in benchmarking and disclosure – a SECO survey of 12 cities with populations from 150,000 to 400,000 found none with policies for such programs in either the public or private sector.
The project that HARC and SPEER will carry out for SECO has several goals that participants hope to achieve within the next two years.
The overarching objective is to have private and/or public benchmarking programs in place by that time in nine Texas cities with about eight million residents, or 30 percent of the state population.
Within two years, the project aims to increase participation rates in private-sector benchmarking programs in Austin, Houston and Fort Worth; inspire creation of three more private-sector programs in Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso; and facilitate the addition of public and private programs in three mid-size cities.
A key activity will be the production of a benchmarking and disclosure guidebook, informed by experiences in Texas and elsewhere, which will include development tools, templates, best practices and case studies.
The guidebook “will walk local jurisdictions through the process of developing robust benchmarking and disclosure policies and programs applicable to the private and public sector,” according to the SECO report.
One part of HARC’s work will involve working with cities and the Department of Energy to help municipal officials use a new software application called the Standard Energy Efficiency Data Platform, or SEED, Ronk said.
According to a DOE description, SEED “helps organizations easily manage data on the energy performance of large groups of buildings. Users can combine data from multiple sources, clean and validate it, and share the information with others. The software application provides an easy, flexible, and cost-effective method to improve the quality and availability of data to help demonstrate the economic and environmental benefits of energy efficiency, to implement programs, and to target investment activity.”
HARC will help city officials enter data into the SEED application, Ronk said. “Cities can still do whatever they want (in implementing benchmarking and disclosure), but if we help get them into that bigger platform gives us more information, we can work with and gives them more flexibility to use DOE’s other tools going forward.”
HARC will also be working with SPEER on outreach to mid-size cities through activities such as workshops, so their officials can learn about benchmarking’s benefits and gain expertise in using it for tracking energy use in their own buildings, she added.
The same tools that will be provided to local government officials will be made available to private building owners to help them learn about their energy use in a way that may motivate them to undertake more energy-conservation measures, she said.