Advocates of energy benchmarking say that the practice, currently occurring in a handful of cities in the United States, potentially could lead to dramatic reductions in wasted energy from buildings.

Laurie Kerr, senior policy advisor at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, says requiring building owners to audit and make public their buildings’ energy usage will motivate them to look for greater efficiencies. 

For example, they might educate tenants about conservation measures—like turning off the lights when they leave the building for the day, or plan retrofits or design new buildings with energy efficiency in mind. “It’s the [Garrison Keillor] Lake Wobegon Syndrome—everybody wants to be above average,” she said at a March 1 panel discussion at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. 

In the first year of New York’s “Greener, Greater Buildings” plan, which, among other things, requires owners of all commercial buildings larger than 50,000 sq ft benchmark and publicly disclose their energy use, the city is finding that some buildings “are actually wasting a great deal of energy…We see an awful lot of potential for reduction on that low end,” Kerr said. 

The city is planning on issuing a report on its findings some time in April.  The plan, one of the most aggressive in the nation, with a goal of a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, was formally adopted by the state’s legislature in 2009.

But there are some drawbacks. Building owners’ groups like the Building Owners Management Association (BOMA) cite the privacy concerns of tenants, and buildings that do not comply with the benchmarking requirements in New York will receive a violation notice.

Nevertheless, greater transparency should help bring about a transformation of the building marketplace, the panelists said. . The speakers, who also included representatives from the cities of Seattle and San Francisco, and the Urban Land Institute, said they think other cities will adopt similar measures over time. “I think we’re in the middle of seeing the market transform,” said ULI’s chairman of the Greenprint Center for Building Performance, Charles Leitner.