Energy Consumption: You Can't Control What You Don't Measure

08/24/2012 | By Chris Olson

Making Intangible Energy a Tangible Matter

At the gas pump, energy has weight and volume in addition to the obvious cost on the whirling display. The fumes and the weight of a gas can (about 6 pounds per gallon) remind us that it’s a very tangible commodity like a gallon of milk. We are aware of how often we need to fill up at the pump and of the approximate mileage that our vehicles get. More broadly, we are also aware that vehicles getting 40 miles and more to the gallon are likely to be hybrid electric vehicles, that diesels do better than gas engines, that vehicles with an mpg in the 20s are nothing special, and that trucks and SUVs can easily have an mpg rating in the teens or less.

For the occupants and owners of commercial buildings, energy consumption is a less tangible concept. You don’t touch electricity—at least not willingly—and natural gas doesn’t pass through your fingers. You have no idea of the energy consumed by the buildings that you frequent nor its cost.

Now imagine if you were as familiar with the energy use index (EUI) of those buildings as you are with the mpg ratings for vehicles. With the release last month of New York City’s first energy benchmarking report for private buildings, you are much closer to that kind of familiarity.

New York requires all private buildings over 50,000 square feet to file annual reports on energy and water consumption. Reports were submitted for 75% of those buildings. Owners who did not file are subject to a $500 fine.

But the benchmarking report, not the requirement, is the real news. Probably the largest effort of its kind, it incorporates data on 1.8 billion square feet of space. You can read some of the fascinating results in our news story (page 21). As benchmarking reports spread across the country, the potential goes far beyond the comparative building data, however. A host of owners, facility managers, researchers and consultants will be able to probe questions like the estimated and actual performance of energy retrofits, the retrofits that will reap the highest returns, and measures of energy per unit of economic activity rather than mere comparisons of building type. A puzzling correlation in the New York data between EUI and asthma rates is another area that can benefit from further analysis.

It’s a cliché but it’s true: You can’t control what you don’t measure.


Related Coverage