The New Capital of Energy Conservation

The New Capital of Energy Conservation

How Atlanta is leading the south in energy efficiency policy.


By Cecilia Shutters

From the baking heat and humidity of an Atlanta summer, stepping into the cool, climate-controlled, reprieve of one of its large downtown buildings offers instant relief. Once a largely unchecked box for potential savings and even job growth, Atlanta’s commercial building stock is now at the center of the city’s newest, boldest energy policy, the Commercial Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance. The city projects “a 20 percent reduction in commercial energy consumption by the year 2030,” which will “spur the creation of more than 1,000 jobs a year in the first few years, and reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent from 2013 levels by 2030.”

The unanimous passage of the ordinance by the City Council in April of this year makes it the first city in the southeast, and the 12th city in the United States, to pass a version of what is known as benchmarking and disclosure (also known as transparency) policies. Atlanta’s announcement precedes Portland, Oregon’s and Kansas City, Missouri’s recent announcements of similar polices, bringing the total number of cities to 14 as of this writing.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says, “This ordinance positions the City of Atlanta as a national leader in energy policy and aligns with my goal to make Atlanta a top-tier city for sustainability.”


Atlanta mayor, Kasim Reed. Photo: Stan Kaady

Atlanta’s Commercial Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance is bold in its scope. It is only the fourth to have a policy inclusive of the powerful triumvirate of benchmarking, transparency, and commissioning, with a retrocommissioning option and the first city to include water audits.

“Cities can be powerful incubators for ground-breaking policy, especially on the energy front,” remarked Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, newly minted director of Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability. “Atlanta’s ordinance is particularly innovative since it includes water efficiency as well as energy efficiency.”


Atlanta, Georgia’s state capitol building with the downtown skyline on the right. Photo: Henryk Sadura.

Benchmarking and transparency policies, now in 14 cities, two states, and one county, are the embodiment of the aphorism “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” The building area covered by benchmarking and transparency (in multiple forms) across the country is equivalent to approximately 6.6 billion square feet of floor space.  In its basic form, the first component of these policies, benchmarking, does exactly what it sounds like it might: sets the base against which the progress toward energy efficiency will be compared. Buildings then report their benchmarked consumption, and progress over time, to the administering authority via the transparency portion of the policy.

The third part of the policy puzzle is the energy audits, and in few cases retrocommissioning. The energy audit is defined as a professional appraisal of the existing equipment, operations, and opportunities for improvement. Retrocommissioning is an extension applied to existing buildings, in Atlanta’s policy this is a voluntary add-on, and ultimately was a concession to stakeholders looking for a more “iterative” approach to efficiency upgrades.

The version that Atlanta’s City Council was able to pass is on the high end of the spectrum in terms of its requirements and expected outcomes. Specifically, all city-owned or operated buildings and all commercial buildings over 25,000 gross square feet must comply with benchmarking and disclosure using ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, and all city-owned or -operated buildings and all commercial buildings over 25,000 gross square feet must submit energy audits once every ten years. Notice of compliance went out early this spring; city-owned buildings had to comply first (by April 2015) and privately owned buildings have until July 20, 2015 to meet the requirements.

When asked about the expected impact, Matt Cox, Buildings Energy Efficiency Project Manager for the city, said, “At full implementation, we’re expecting this policy to provide significant across-the-board benefits, not just to building owners, but also in terms of public health benefits from reduced emissions and more jobs that will contribute to Atlanta’s economic well-being.”


Atlanta, the capital and largest city of the U.S. state of Georgia, is home to at least 37 skyscrapers over 400 feet tall. Photo: Lawrence Jackson

Passing this type of ordinance, though gaining momentum in municipalities across the country, like most innovative ideas, faces resistance. The Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) has been working with governments to overcome challenges and create opportunities for benchmarking and transparency policies.

“One challenge that owners often voice is that they can’t control the entire building themselves and that tenants have a big impact on energy use in a building. This points to two market needs and opportunities,” describes Cliff Majersik, executive director at IMT. “One, a need and opportunity for green or energy-aligned leases. These tools align the incentives for both tenants and owners to invest in energy efficiency so that both parties come out ahead when a building becomes more energy efficient. These leases also allow owners and tenants to set goals jointly and find pathways to reaching these goals together. Having a numeric score, such as an ENERGY STAR score, provided through benchmarking, creates a helpful, measurable target for everyone. The other need and opportunity is for whole-building data access. To fully benchmark a building, you need access to all of its energy use data.”

Despite challenges, IMT states that governments across the country are actively pursuing benchmarking and transparency to confront increased attention to water and energy management. In fact, the trend toward even more rigorous add-ons, like retrocommissioning and mandatory audits is becoming more popular as a policy option.

Atlanta is one of those governments. With 2,350 buildings (88 percent of the total commercial building space in the city) required to participate, Atlanta is well positioned to earn the moniker of the new capital of conservation in the southeast and beyond.