A few years ago, passing energy benchmarking rules was considered a significant leap forward in efficiency policy. Benchmarking is still in its infancy in the U.S., but some early movers, like Washington, D.C., are already looking far beyond gathering Energy Star scores.

The nation’s capital was the first city in the U.S. to pass benchmarking goals, and it just released its second year of public disclosure data from the district’s energy benchmarking ordinance. In 2012, Greentech Media compared some of the initial results with New York City, which also requires public disclosure of benchmarking data.

At the time, New York seemed to have a more comprehensive plan of attack for its lowest-performing buildings. But Washington, D.C.’s achievements in recent years cannot be overlooked.

Here are five ways that Washington is getting things done (at least in energy efficiency).

Sustainable plan for D.C.

Washington, D.C. released a comprehensive sustainability plan in February 2013 that includes a section on the built environment. The plan calls for a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption in the city’s building stock.

The district’s Green Building Advisory Council is currently hashing out the details of a new green construction code and launching a green building fund grant program. “The ultimate goal of greening the codes is to make high performance construction more mainstream -- and to eventually get to the point where we don‘t have to call it green anymore,” the report states. “When we achieve this goal, one milestone of the district‘s green building leadership will be achieved.”

Leading the way in benchmarking

Washington, D.C. was the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to require both public and private buildings of a certain size to disclose energy performance. The trend has caught on, with several large cities and a few states also passing benchmarking rules.

Some studies have found benchmarking can cut energy use by up to 7 percent, just by making owners more aware of how the building is performing and pointing out anomalies that need to be corrected, but it is still too early to see if those savings will remain consistent across various cities.

Benchmarking is just one energy efficiency domain in which Washington has made significant gains. The city leads the nation in LEED-certified square footage per capita. Cities like New York and Chicago may have far more LEED buildings overall, but Washington, D.C. is the only municipality with more than 100 square feet of LEED space per capita.

Although it is about more than just energy efficiency, the adoption of LEED often signals the importance of sustainability measures to the public and to private stakeholders that seek out the rating. In that respect, Washington, D.C. has come a long way in a short period of time. At the end of 2011, there were 236 LEED-certified projects covering nearly 44 million square feet in the district. One year later, that figure grew by about 50 percent, with 110 more buildings that equated to more than 25 million square feet.

Washington, D.C. also comes in near the top for the number of Energy Star-certified buildings per capita, and that figure has been growing rapidly. The district is second only to Los Angeles in Energy Star-certified buildings per capita. From 2011 to 2012, Energy Star certifications jumped from 127 to 185 buildings, with an increased square footage of nearly 50 percent, according to the report.

The increase in Energy Star buildings is not surprising, however, as the benchmarking rules require building owners to use the U.S. EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool for public disclosure. Buildings that cannot receive an Energy Star score can use a metric known as weather-normalized source energy use intensity, or EUI. Early results suggest that, at least in Washington, D.C., benchmarking is saving energy. The Department of General Services reduced energy savings on average of 7 percent from 2010 to 2012, and private buildings dropped energy use by 6 percent.

20 percent in 20 months

As part of Sustainable D.C., Washington has set a goal of reducing the energy use in more than half of its 30-million-plus square feet of municipal facilities by 20 percent in 20 months.

The project is about halfway completed, and according to Sam Brooks, associate director of energy and sustainability for D.C.’s Department of General Services, “It’s going awesome. There are some really fun days. There are some really infuriating days.” It is hard to find someone as enthusiastic about energy efficiency and building data as Brooks, but he is also brutally honest about the challenges of not only achieving the goals, but actually making them an ongoing part of operations.

“We’re trying to re-imagine how you do energy efficiency. Operational inefficiency is more difficult to nail down,” he said. Each building has its interval meter data, consisting of about 35,000 weather-normalized data points per year, which are delivered by Lucid’s Building OS. “The data has been a game-changer for us,” he added, but it still amounts to little more than turning things on and off.

Still, though turning devices on and off and correcting for mistakes in basic building operations schedules may sound like a one-off success in terms of cutting energy use, Brooks contends that the constant stream of data is empowering. “The transparency of information is transformational,” he said. “It’s giving facility managers' tools to address the inefficiency.”

The district is backing that up by doubling down on training facility managers and giving them tablets to make it easier to track the information provided. Measurement and verification is built into the system, and the city is working on aligning energy consumption with billing so that agencies can see the energy savings reflected in their budgets.

Focus on schools

A 2012 report described schools, one of the largest components of Washington, D.C.'s building stock, as “the district’s most challenging buildings group.” This year, the city launched the D.C. Green Schools Challenge to bring educators, students and facilities managers into the energy efficiency conversation. The inaugural competition is targeting more than 100 schools in the district.

The K-12 schools in Washington currently use 9 percent more energy than the national average for schools. Although the figure needs improvement, it is still far better than the 42 percent more that the district’s fire departments and police stations use compared to the national average. Still, D.C. schools' rate of energy use was already 4 percent better in 2012 than it was in 2010.

Brooks said that there is about $15 million available for retrofits in the city’s building stock, much of which could go to schools. There is also a competition for students to prepare and submit energy efficiency retrofit projects to the city for consideration. By making energy efficiency a part of the ongoing conversation with schools, Brooks is confident that the gains achieved will not fade when the competition is over. “If you get on the scale every day and track your results against your peers, your efforts will be extremely effective,” he said.

Getting Pepco on board

When the city first envisioned its program to cut energy use 20 percent in 20 months, time was of the essence to start collecting data. But getting access to interval data was not as easy as the city would have hoped. Although Pepco, the utility that serves the area, had deployed smart meters, it still took six to eight months of wrangling to get the data from the utility. 

Fast-forward nearly a year, and the city has worked hard to ensure that each building manager or owner does not have to go through as much wrangling as it once did. In the most recent report, the city noted that Pepco is providing aggregated whole-building electricity consumption data where five or more accounts are present.

Now, the utility is working with the District Department of the Environment and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Data Access Accelerator. As part of that partnership, Pepco has committed to provide direct upload of data to Energy Star Portfolio Manager by the end of 2014. In 2014, whole building data will be required for benchmarking.

The focused effort on providing detailed data and institutionalizing energy-efficiency measurement and verification is starting to pay off, even though the challenges are significant. Also, as more cities move beyond benchmarking, intra-city competition will continue to heat up.

“We’re making a core hypothesis that the radically transparent nature of [building energy] information is transforming [city buildings],” said Brooks. And even though some of it is just turning things off, “It’s all really challenging,” he said of rethinking energy efficiency for the entire city -- adding that sometimes, “It’s laughably difficult.”