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‘Greener, Greater Buildings’ tally a rough pioneer experience

Missing data and unique New York City architecture pose challenges for the city's ambitious energy-savings plan

The journey to a “greener, greater New York” is hitting a muddy patch.

Owners of more than 3,000 buildings legally required to share information about their energy consumption failed to file a report with the city last year, a violation that carries a $2,000 fine.

Photo: M.J. Moneymaker/Flickr

And among the 75 percent of building owners who did file, up to one-quarter of the reports had to be discarded because of questions about the quality of the data.

In August, the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability released the results of New York City’s first annual survey of buildings’ energy use — the largest such data release ever in a single city. The so-called benchmarking report is a fundamental piece of the Greener Greater Buildings Plan, a package of laws passed by the City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009 to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in New York City.

The survey lets building owners see how much fuel and water they churn through – and later, to begin to measure how much they and their tenants are saving through investments in energy efficiency, such as replacing boilers. All buildings in the city 50,000 square feet and larger must conduct the annual surveys and submit the results to the city. And once every ten years, they will have to undergo an energy audit that identifies specific actions they can take to save energy.

“It has the potential to be a tremendous step forward and a model for cities everywhere,” said Nancy Anderson, executive director of the Sallan Foundation, an advocacy group for sustainable cities.

This week, Sallan and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute of CUNY’s Baruch College released its own report on the city’s effort, which called the level of participation in the inaugural survey “a rousing success” that makes New York City “a national and international leader and a model for others” seeking to measure and reduce energy use.

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Manhattan’s property owners were the most compliant, with 85 percent of all buildings reporting their energy use. In Staten Island, a borough with relatively few large buildings, just 39 percent did. Starting next year, the city will post the annual results of a building’s energy scores on a public website.

The annual deadline for submitting the information is May 1. Last year, though, the city pushed the deadline back to August 1 and decided not to fine properties if they submitted their data by the end of the year. By August, 65 percent of the properties had complied and by the end December, that had jumped to 75 percent. Only the data collected through August was used for the city’s analysis. This year, roughly 70 percent of buildings filed by the May 1 deadline.

Owners enter their data — including monthly energy and water consumption, along with information like square footage, the building’s uses, and hours of operation — into a national online system run by the Environmental Protection Agency. The system then ranks the building based on how it compares to other properties of its kind.

But measuring buildings’ energy use accurately turns out to be easier said than done. For starters, many building owners don’t actually know the total square footage of their property — a crucial piece of information in determining how much energy it consumes relative to other buildings. Department of Finance records, used to determine which properties must participate in Greener, Greater, do not include the square footage of basements. Owners of older structures are sometimes left to pull out a measuring tape and make their best guess.

Owners are also supposed to provide the city with information about tenants’ electricity use – data they need to get from Con Edison. Initially, the utility company was not able to provide the aggregated total for entire buildings, and it would simply drop information from accounts that had been closed once a tenant moved out of a unit. That problem has since been resolved.

And if a building owner chooses to enter inaccurate or even fabricated data instead of getting hit with fines for noncompliance, those numbers go right into the system. Many building owners ended up hiring a consultant to do the benchmarking for them: more than two-thirds of all the surveys were done by the same 30 firms.

The information output also has important flaws. According to the Sallan report, the EPA database used to generate a ranking actually contains fewer buildings than the number of properties New York City benchmarked this past year. It is also likely an unrepresentative sample, made up of buildings whose owners measured energy use voluntarily. The EPA system compares buildings to others of their kind, scoring 15 different building types — but none of which are multifamily residential buildings, ubiquitous in New York City.

Also tough to compare to anything else are the many unusual spaces that make New York New York: television studios, trading floors and data centers that use energy intensively. “You can’t just take down the New York Stock Exchange for a night,” said Angela Pinsky, senior vice president for management services for the Real Estate Board of New York.

Only 1,479 of the 12,600 properties that submitted reports on their energy use could be rated using the EPA system.

Noted Pinsky, “New York City’s building stock is pretty unique.”