Energy efficiency: How mayors can fight climate change and save money

Right now, leaders across America are gathering in Washington, D.C., for the 85th annual winter meeting of the Conference of Mayors to discuss the most urgent issues facing cities—including energy. From the impact of climate change to the rising costs of utilities, energy use affects how families live and work in our cities. At a time when the federal government may be unwilling or unable to implement policies that would seriously improve energy efficiency and cost savings for families and building managers, all smart city officials must, as the saying goes, think globally and act locally.

One way for America’s mayors to immediately and easily make positive changes is to join the many federal, state, and city agencies, leading nonprofit organizations, and socially responsible investors who are paving the way for cities to thrive environmentally, socially, and economically. Nationally, about 40 percent of energy consumption comes from residential and commercial buildings. Not only does that impact the environment, but it’s also expensive. If we are going to change the way Americans use energy—and we need to, because our cities’ wellbeing is at stake—buildings are definitely a good place to start. 

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Around the country, laws mandating the measurement of buildings’ energy use—through a process called benchmarking—are becoming commonplace. Major nonprofits like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation are helping governments make their buildings’ leases contingent on sustainability improvements. And socially responsible investors are requiring sustainability plans before they provide their investees with any capital. This trend is fueling broader, mainstream interest from tech-savvy leaders and investors who see the opportunity to positively impact business and the environment while producing a substantial return on their investment.

In December, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and 18 other prominent investors formed Breakthrough Energy to invest at least $1 billion into clean-energy companies over the next 20 years, including companies focusing on buildings. CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System) is one of the biggest asset holders in the country: they too are embracing sustainability and efficiency, by reporting their assets’ benchmarking data to the world’s leading sustainability assessment organization, GRESB. They’re doing so because they want to make sure that all of their real estate assets meet the environmental, social, and governance standards that have become so important for investors around the country.

Combined, these developments will help cities use hard data to cut their energy costs, improve their residents’ health, and make their buildings more attractive to developers and homeowners. In New York City, for example, buildings create over 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and make up two-thirds of the city’s energy use. As a result, New York is aiming to become one of the most environmentally and financially sustainable cities in the country, using data to make smart decisions about energy efficiency.

As part of New York City’s Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, the city has passed a law requiring owners of large buildings to annually measure their energy and water consumption—that is, to use energy benchmarking—and to submit their data to the city. That helps the city track energy use, providing officials with vital data that helps inform smart policymaking. In addition, city laws require that: buildings meet the most current energy code for any renovations or alterations; buildings over 50,000-square feet undergo periodic energy audits to ensure that their equipment is performing properly; and that large non-residential buildings upgrade their lighting to meet current standards and provide monthly energy statements for each non-residential tenant.

The city’s long-term goal is to reduce buildings-based emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and citywide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. That’s a huge ambition, and it wouldn’t be conceivable without such an aggressive, targeted plan to improve building energy efficiency—one that is helping the city save not only the environment but money as well, by reducing energy bills for its government and residents.

As New York has found, energy benchmarking and data-driven sustainability initiatives are good for the environment, business, and its citizens. Better utility management helps city governments, investors, and building owners understand which buildings are performing well and where improvements can be made. As utility costs go down and buildings improve their environmental performance, outside investors are further incented to provide capital, ensuring everybody wins.

This energy revolution is underway all across the country, and it’s a multi-pronged effort: state benchmarking laws, utility energy savings initiatives, federal green building loan programs, and private investing are having a huge impact on our nation’s cities. From L.A. and San Francisco to Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City, many of the country’s biggest metropolises are making great strides towards understanding their power and water usage. In doing so, they are turning their buildings, streets, and communities into better places to live.

More cities’ mayors must take steps to continue this important momentum. Using data to adjust energy and water use conserves precious natural resources, reduces utility bill costs, and frees up that money to be spent elsewhere on city programs or household expenses. Every city can reap those benefits.

It may be the age of climate change and rising costs, but it’s also the age of data and innovation. It’s time we used the information at our disposal to make all buildings energy efficient and reach our sustainability goals. The planet—and our wallets—depend on it.

Laila Partridge is CEO of WegoWise, which helps building owners and managers track and analyze their utility and energy use and waste. 


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.