Energy benchmarking of public and private buildings is on the verge of a boom. From California and Seattle to Austin and New York City, states and cities are requiring benchmarking in various forms to get everyone thinking about energy use -- and then, hopefully, to do something about it.

For the cities of New York and Washington, D.C., the thinking and doing is already happening. Both municipalities have released reports recently with the results of their benchmarking efforts and, to some extent, have outlined what the next steps will be.

“If you look at the bigger picture, governments are looking hard at measuring in their facilities -- that’s accountability to their tax payers,” said Andrew Burr, Director of the Building Energy Rating Program for the Institute for Market Transformation, a nonprofit that works to promote energy efficiency and green building. “These portfolios are much bigger than many, even the largest privately held real estate portfolios.”

The results from the two cities are both basic and instructive. Both cities used the Energy Star Portfolio Manager, which uses utility bills as a proxy for efficiency. It’s an affordable and good place to start, but as the cities found out, it only gives a relative snapshot.

In New York, the 2,730 buildings studied fell directly down the middle, with 51 percent better than their national average by building type, and 49.9 percent doing worse. In particular, the libraries and schools were performing on or above average compared to other similar buildings nationwide.

Fire and police stations did not fare so well. Most fire stations are less than 10,000 square feet in size, so instead of using Energy Star, the city measured the buildings using the Energy Utilization Index. For the EUI, the lower score corresponds with better energy efficiency. For fire stations, the picture was particularly grim. Only eight percent performed better than the national average, and the majority had more than double the energy use per kBtu/sq. ft.

If it sounds like a grim picture for the buildings that house New York’s Bravest, it could just be an accounting issue. “I take the comparison with a grain of salt,” said Tony Liou, principal engineer with Partner Energy, an energy efficiency consulting firm that is doing some of the benchmarking for city buildings in Los Angeles.

Liou, who has worked with building owners across the country, said that the process of benchmarking may not lead to a boom in retrofits, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant energy savings to be had. “It’s just basic oversight and troubleshooting,” he noted, adding that “simple awareness drives action.”

But with the proper data, retrofits are easier to justify. The report noted that fire stations and police precincts will probably be a focus on the city’s Small Buildings Program, which has already issued an RFP for energy efficiency projects in buildings between 5,000 and 50,000 square feet.

Full-scale energy audits are also underway in New York’s schools, which make up 56 percent of the city’s municipal building stock by floor area. New York has done audits in 65 schools in the past three years, and that is expected to increase to include another 120 schools in the coming year.

Schools are also the bulk of the public building stock in Washington, D.C. But instead of being a focus of audits and upgrades, the city described it as “the District’s most challenging buildings group.” Compared to New York, which performed slightly above average, Washington, D.C. came in at the 29th percentile nationally.

Energy use in the District’s schools is costing about $30 million annually, but there is $11 million in federal stimulus funds going to retrofit schools with energy and water conservation improvements.

Although the findings, especially in the District, would seem to suggest the city is squandering tax dollars with lax energy usage in public buildings, it can also be seen as quite the opposite.

Baselines like the one Washington, D.C. and New York are building will allow for year-over-year improvements. “It’s like losing weight,” said Liou. “You need to get on the scale once a week to know if you’re making progress.”

Liou noted that he has heard from politicians in places that are not pursuing benchmarking (either for municipal or commercial buildings) and they cite that low Energy Star scores could hurt not only the perception of the city, but also the tax rate. But for cities that are measuring in -- and making strides with -- their building stock, it could also be seen as a selling point for sustainability-conscious corporations.

In New York, the benchmarking is already informing the city’s operations and maintenance program. Recently, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services established an energy efficiency operations and maintenance plan after doing a year-long study.

According to the report, the new plan “focuses on repairing, maintaining, and operating existing equipment efficiently; increasing training and outreach to improve skills and raise awareness; and providing management oversight, accountability, and transparency.” Overall, it emphasizes bringing energy efficiency into day-to-day operations. The program, which has nothing to do with retrofits, is expected to cut citywide energy use 10 percent to 15 percent per year, a cost savings of at least $51 million.

It’s not easy work. Liou noted that for departments like Parks and Recreation in Los Angeles, there are a lot of odd buildings that have to be benchmarked. It’s extremely time consuming. New York noted that a lack of sub-metering also made it difficult to get accurate data for some buildings.

Cities like Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C, which have comprehensive benchmarking data, are still in the minority of localities. It’s early days, and once energy use has been measured, upgrades can be made.

With political gridlock in Washington, money for energy efficiency could be one of the bright areas in President Obama’s 2013 budget proposal. Obama has called for $2.33 billion for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which is an increase over 2012 levels. Although some areas of renewable energy have become hot-button political issues, the funds would support the administration’s goal of increasing building energy efficiency by 50 percent by 2030 and decreasing federal energy demand.

A government drive to increase efficiency will eventually trickle down to other businesses, even the small ones. “For the first time, local governments are being accountable for their energy use,” said Burr. “And local governments should not be asking the private sector to do things with its buildings that the government wouldn’t do."