Editor's Letter

July 1, 2011
Flying by the Seat of the Pants

Can you think of any key events that took place in 1979? How about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the flight of the Shah from Iran, the ascent of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant?

The connections among those events in the geopolitics of energy are unmistakable today, but they were not so easily foretold in 1979. Nevertheless, the U.S. government had the foresight that year to launch the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), which collected data on the energy expenditures, consumption, and energy-related characteristics of U.S. commercial buildings. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has conducted CBECS every three or four years since, until this year, when EIA announced that budget cuts had forced the

suspension of the 2011 survey. The National Energy Modeling System (NEMS), the preeminent tool for developing projections of U.S. energy production, consumption, prices and technologies, was also halted.

"The lower FY 2011 funding level will require significant cuts in EIA's data, analysis, and forecasting activities," said EIA administrator Richard Newell in April. "EIA had already taken a number of decisive steps in recent years to streamline operations and enhance overall efficiency."

Indeed EIA had already taken steps to contend with its shriveling budget, and one of those crippled the 2007 survey, which used a cheaper but unproven method. EIA acknowledged earlier this year that the 2007 survey was a failure and its data invalid. For the 2011 survey, EIA developed new methods, but with the survey grounded, the most recent CBECS data comes from 2003.

This puts the industry in the position of a pilot flying without instruments in overcast conditions, by the seat of the pants. The energy landscape below and the terrain ahead are cloudy. The scarcity of benchmarking data hinders energy efficiency practices, and affects such programs as ENERGY STAR's building ratings.

As of late June, the CBECS program remained suspended. You, our BUILDINGS users and subscribers, have reported for years that energy is your highest priority. If you are a member of an industry association, you might encourage its leadership to support a CBECS reinstatement before the 2011 survey crashes and burns.

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