San Francisco rates its big energy users. IMAGE BY Cliff Baise

San Francisco's 'benchmarking' was first in California; state will follow


SAN FRANCISCO—Barry Hooper’s co-workers can be forgiven if they try to avoid him in the office. No one wants to be fingered as an energy hog.

Why this matters

New state energy goals are envisioned as key steps toward reducing greenhouse gases in California. Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for about 20 percent of those pollutants, officials say. Buying newly constructed, highly energy-efficient homes will cost a premium -- perhaps as much as $50,000 more. And homeowners and commercial landlords who choose to renovate will have to meet new standards that are likely to push up the expense of refurbishing. Officials say they’ll save money in the long run.

Hooper manages San Francisco’s five-year-old building-efficiency ordinance, created to measure wasted energy in the city’s largest structures, give them a score the public can see and prod owners to lower the lights and the thermostats.

Actually, the program is going so well that the soft-spoken bureaucrat rarely needs to raise his voice.  “There’s no energy police,” Hooper said, laughing.

Since efficiency monitoring was adopted in 2011, energy use in participating buildings has fallen nearly 8 percent, according to an audit report last year by the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

That's impressive, Hooper says, against the backdrop of San Francisco’s economic boom: Since 2009, employment has gone up by 11 percent, and occupancy of commercial buildings is rising.

“The trend would be for increased energy use,” he said.

Because buildings are responsible for more than half of San Francisco’s greenhouse-gas emissions, the initiative is helping the city respond to climate change, said Hooper, an amiable 42-year-old with a master’s degree from U.C. Santa Barbara's Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

New York, Boston and Seattle have similar programs. San Francisco’s ordinance is the first in California, with Berkeley about to enact one and Los Angeles exploring the idea. State officials are poised to adopt a version under recently enacted energy policies, with the details still being determined.

Although more efficient energy use has long been a goal of regular updates to California’s building code, Gov. Jerry Brown raised the stakes last year by signing a law that calls for homes and commercial structures to slash their power use radically by 2030. Part of that effort will be making buildings’ energy footprints transparent.

Hooper is helping the state energy commission design its system, which may assign a numeric or letter grade for display in building lobbies, much as health grades are posted in restaurants.

The ordinance Hooper wrote for San Francisco requires participation by owners of more than 1,800 commercial buildings larger than 10,000 square feet. They report their energy-use data electronically, updating the information every April 1.

The data is crunched according to federal Energy Star guidelines, and each structure is “benchmarked” with a score, from a low of 1 to maximum efficiency at 100. The scores are posted online – the iconic Transamerica Pyramid has an 88 -- and Hooper and his team work with property personnel to increase efficiency and reduce consumption.

For 35 years Danny Murtagh has managed operations at the sprawling office complex at 4 Embarcadero Center, across the street from the famous Ferry Building.  He proudly announces his building’s score—86—as if bragging about his children’s grades.

Reducing energy use saves money, too. For example, said the Boston Properties vice president, state-of-the-art commercial lighting 30 years ago was the “4X4”—four lights mounted in one recessed fixture. Eventually, “we just went through and took out two of the bulbs” in each fixture. “We called it ‘de-lamping.’

“…When you consider there are 400 light fixtures on each floor and you’ve got a 30- or 40-story building, it starts to be real money,” Murtagh said.

San Francisco spent two years creating its benchmarking system, according to Hooper, “getting everyone together and coming up with something that’s really making a difference.” But the program has not been without hiccups.

Until the recent change in state law, building owners were unable to obtain power-consumption information if the utility bill was the responsibility of a tenant. Soon, utility companies will be allowed to release that information.

And compliance varies wildly. Hotels have a 94 percent compliance rate, while less than half of the city’s warehouses—43 percent--report their energy use, according to the most recent accounting.

J. Timothy Falvey, president of Hanford-Freund & Company, a real estate and property management firm with commercial buildings around the city, said the difficulty of getting energy use information from tenants and utilities makes "administration of the program a huge burden."

Failure to report carries a $2,500 fine, which the city has never levied. Hooper admits that makes participation essentially voluntary, relying on business’ sense of corporate citizenship and a dose of peer pressure as more owners see the benefits.

“If people have good information about what is in their own best interest,” he said, “they will make good decisions.”

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