Clearing the Air: Chicago's Condominium Community Will Benefit from Proposed Benchmarking Ordinance

Back in late July, a dozen Chicago aldermen moved to defer the vote on the Chicago Energy Use Benchmarking Ordinance for six weeks, citing the need to inform themselves and their constituents on what the ordinance entails.  Unfortunately, since that time the truth about the ordinance has been muddled by a campaign of misinformation and misdirection aimed at creating confusion among Chicago citizens – particularly those owning condominiums.  Here we address concerns raised and encourage condo owners and associations to learn the facts about the ordinance and its benefits for the condominium community. 

Only the largest condominium buildings would benchmark and disclose their energy use. 

Less than one percent of Chicago’s buildings are larger than 50,000 square feet, but these big buildings represent 22% of all energy use in our built environment.  The ordinance would require residential buildings over 50,000 square feet to track and report their total building energy use, starting in 2015 for residential buildings 250,000 square feet or larger, and starting in 2016 for residential buildings 50,000-250,000 square feet.  Because the ordinance focuses on the largest buildings, it would not affect walk-ups or buildings with just a few units.  Older and historic buildings, which are frequently much more efficient than their newer counterparts, should not be disadvantaged by the ordinance.

The data gathered from benchmarking would include metrics like energy use intensity, greenhouse gas emissions, and relative energy performance compared to similar buildings in similar climates nationwide.  The ordinance only requires whole building data, not data from individual residents. A multi-family building’s electricity data is already accessible at the building level through ComEd, so individual condo owners or tenants need not take any action.  And by the time of the first round of implementation for residential buildings (June 2015), we anticipate natural gas data to be accessible for the whole building as well, keeping the process quite simple and private.  

Once a building is benchmarked, the data would be available to building owners, residents, and the public, providing greater transparency and awareness of building efficiency successes and opportunities.  Besides helping current owners and tenants identify opportunities to save energy and lower their bills through no-cost or low-cost efficiency measures, this information will also benefit prospective renters and buyers.  Just like consumers shopping for a car can consider its Miles Per Gallon (MPG) rating along with other aspects like price, size, style, safety ratings, resale value, and options, someone looking to buy or rent a condo would be able to consider reported energy data along with other features like location, square footage, price, architectural style, age of the building, and amenities. 

Benchmarking is easy and affordable.

According to EPA, about 40% of buildings covered by the ordinance already benchmark their energy use.  The benchmarking tool, ENERGY STAR’S Portfolio Manager, is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is completely free

Every three years, the data inputted into Portfolio Manager would have to be verified by a licensed professional, like an engineer or architect, to ensure accuracy.  If the building has in-house professionals, then the only cost of verification is a small amount of staff time.  If the condo building hires a firm to verify the data, that would cost approximately $750-2,500 once every three years.

The City and the supporters of this ordinance know that every cost to a condo association is felt by its members.  To ease buildings into the implementation of this ordinance, several companies have committed to providing a limited number of free verifications to buildings.  Also, the City of Chicago is partnering with city college programs in relevant energy fields to provide free verification services by graduates.  Not only is this partnership making benchmarking easier and cheaper, it is also putting fellow Chicagoans to work and strengthening the local economy.     

The benefits for condominium associations abound, no matter how energy efficient the building.

Energy efficient buildings and lower performing buildings both stand to gain from this ordinance.  Condo buildings that are already energy efficient will obtain high scores in the benchmarking tool, which could raise the value of these buildings and improve their competitiveness in the rental market.  Buildings with lower performance can increase their scores without spending significant financial resources through no- and low-cost efficiency improvements. Because the ordinance does not allow disclosure of the first year’s data, buildings can choose to implement no- and low-cost solutions and publicly disclose better metrics the following year. 

The ordinance does not require buildings to spend money on improvements, but there are voluntary no- and low-cost actions available to increase efficiency and performance scores.

Studies have shown that once buildings benchmark, they reduced their energy use by 2.4% annually based upon the knowledge they gained and savings opportunities they identified through the process. There is no mandatory improvement or energy rationing in the ordinance despite misinformation to the contrary.

What the ordinance does do is create the opportunity to learn from the benchmarked data and make voluntary changes to save money.  Chicago’s electric and gas utilities, ComEd and People’s Gas,  provide several free services and products to interested condo buildings such as free energy assessments and free faucet aerators. The Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC) is also funded to provide free in-depth energy assessments to condo associations.  Further, private sector financing can create low-cost opportunities for buildings to make small improvements that will save significant money in the long run.

We can save money and do our part on climate change.

Chicago’s built environment accounts for 71% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.  By addressing Chicago’s largest buildings, the benchmarking and disclosure ordinance is a critical step in Chicago’s ongoing efforts to become the most sustainable city in the nation.  Benchmarking and disclosure empowers us with knowledge that can help reduce energy use, save money, and do our part to stave off the worst effects of climate change.   


This post was co-written by Kimi Narita, MAP Energy Fellow.