Where Energy Performance Meets Policy

A sweeping study sizes up progress in the CRE sector and issues a call to action.

Policies at all levels of government draw both credit and blame for the pace of progress in energy efficiency. A groundbreaking new study from three leading organizations surveys that crucial interaction and finds cause for concern and guarded optimism.

Photo by Raul Varzar on Unsplash

A joint project of three organizations—the Alliance to Save Energy, the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy—the Energy Efficiency Impact Study explores the full range of energy use, from buildings and transportation to utilities.

Comments by leaders of the sponsoring groups advocate stepped-up action in the face of a 20 percent decline in efficiency investments from 2016 to 2018.

“We have an urgent need to scale up our commitment and deployment of energy efficiency, which will be a powerful tool in our toolkit to address the need to accelerate our response to climate change, to create greater economic productivity, and to ensure affordable and accessible energy with greater resilience.” So stated the heads of the participating organizations, Clay Nesler of the Alliance to Save Energy; Lisa Jacobson of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy; and Steven Nadel of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

Among the 54 separate indicators explored in the report, the document devotes considerable space to the built environment. Six areas are cited for particular contributions to improved efficiency.

Powering Progress

Over the past four decades, building codes have cut consumption 40 percent in buildings covered by those standards. Upgrades related to commercial and residential property codes will save $126 billion during the period from 2010 to 2040, the study estimates. Also cited for its contribution is Energy Star. More than 270,000 buildings accounting for 26 billion square feet employed Portfolio Manager in 2018, and those properties cut their energy expenditures 25 percent while reducing operating costs 50 cents per square foot.

Technology is making a sizable contribution to performance. Nearly half of large commercial buildings—46 percent—include a centralized building automation system. This area also presents significant growth potential for smaller as well as larger properties; just 8 percent of small commercial floor space employs a building automation system.

Lighting presents a success story. Even while the number of lamps was increasing by one-quarter from 2001 to 2015, dramatically more efficient bulbs cut energy use from lighting 16 percent. From  2012 to 2016, the cost of lumens dropped 75 percent. One potential cloud on the horizon is related to the Department of Energy’s September 2019 rollback of efficiency standards for lightbulbs.

Other areas within the built environment demonstrated mixed results. Thanks mostly to improved lighting and heating strategies, commercial buildings have steadily reduced their energy consumption per square foot. From 2003 to 2012 alone, consumption by lighting and space heating declined by 600 trillion British thermal units.

But efficiency faces pressure from other directions. Demand from office equipment, HVAC and other needs is rising overall, as is the inventory of commercial space, which expanded from 71 billion to 87 billion between 2003 and 2012 alone. Meanwhile, consumption from plug loads already make up about one-third of energy use by commercial property, a share that could verge on 50 percent by 2020.

States of Innovation

State governments from coast to coast led the way in energy policy last year, powered by a push toward decarbonization and energy efficiency. Many of those initiatives emerged among states that are known for innovation, such as California, Massachusetts and New York. In a telling trend, governments in Maine, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington embraced 100 percent clean energy targets and stepped-up efficiency initiatives. Utilities in New Jersey and Virginia responded to legislation in their states by boosting their efficiency programs. And in Colorado, Hawaii and Washington, lawmakers raised the bar for appliances.

Cities in a variety of regions also pushed the envelope. Boston took the top spot in ACEEE’s 2019 City Clean Energy Scorecard. Rounding out the top 10: San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Washington, New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, and Portland. Policy advances earned Cincinnati, Hartford, and Providence recognition by ACEEE as cities to watch.

In light of the complex challenges and opportunities facing decisionmakers, the sponsoring coalition’s leaders offer a long-term perspective: “Decades of experience have taught us that energy efficiency doesn’t always happen on its own: it requires proactive support among diverse stakeholders to see its benefits and work together to realize them.”