Shop for a Ford Explorer or a Honda Fit, and you’ll find a sticker in the window disclosing the vehicle’s fuel efficiency. But if you want to buy or rent a building, you likely will have no idea how much it will cost to heat or cool. Officials with the City and County of Los Angeles want to change that and soon may join several other American jurisdictions in requiring building owners to report on the energy efficiency of their structures. An ambitious new data set built at UCLA is helping to guide that effort.

The L.A. Energy Atlas project, a first-of-its-kind interactive website, enables policymakers and the public to sort energy consumption and emissions within the county by building size, vintage, construction materials, neighborhood and other metrics. The atlas focuses on electricity and natural gas use. Among its surprising conclusions: Buildings are responsible for 40% of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than from motor vehicles in a region known for its reliance on the automobile.

“I wanted to open up a whole set of questions about where we put our energy conservation and dollars,” said UCLA professor Stephanie Pincetl, who led the four-year project and is continuing to build on it. Information such as that contained in the atlas will be critical to efforts in California and elsewhere targeted at improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Pincetl and her team published the Energy Atlas last September, as city officials were wrapping up nearly a year of public stakeholder meetings, laying the groundwork for an ordinance that would require owners of commercial buildings and large multiunit apartments to report their buildings’ energy use.

“We had a great turnout and a lot of support,” recalled Hilary Firestone, a senior project manager in the Los Angeles Office of Sustainability, which helped lead the process. Between 200 and 300 people attended these sessions, including representatives of building and apartment owners associations, labor leaders, realty corporations, engineering firms that focus on energy efficiency, and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

Last November, the Los Angeles City Council voted to direct the city attorney to draft an energy-use reporting ordinance with input from the Department of Building and Safety. Firestone hopes that the strong consensus that has coalesced behind the proposed measure, including the Chamber of Commerce, labor unions and other groups that are often at odds, will result in quick passage.

“The great thing about the Energy Atlas,” Firestone noted, “is that it’s providing us with real data that can help inform policy and program decisions, for example, about which buildings need the most help and where we can get the most energy savings. This will allow us to make sure that our policy design will have the most impact.”

If the proposed ordinance becomes law, Los Angeles would join a growing list of cities that require owners of commercial buildings, multifamily apartment units and manufacturing facilities to “benchmark” their energy use. Most of these ordinances apply to buildings between 10,000 and 50,000 square feet, on the assumption that they are responsible for the largest share of energy use. Single-family homes are exempt.

The New York experience

In 2009, New York City became the first American municipality to require building owners to report their energy use as well as to conduct periodic energy audits. The city compiles and releases this information each year in aggregate form, allowing individual owners to measure their buildings against citywide averages for energy use and efficiency.

These measures work as gentle prods toward greater efficiency. From 2010 through 2013, benchmarked buildings in New York City cut their energy use by an average of 5.7 percent, saving more than $260 million, according to the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency in buildings. Several other cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta, have joined this effort, reporting similar energy savings, and new benchmarking proposals are now before lawmakers in Houston and Salt Lake City.

Most cities fine scofflaw owners, but Firestone notes “surprisingly high compliance” nationally with the benchmarking rules, higher than with many other building code requirements. For example, Chicago’s just-released Building Energy Benchmarking Report found that 92 percent of building owners complied with energy reporting requirements last year. That kind of response speaks to “the broad awareness and importance of these programs,” Firestone observed, and the fact that these measures are aimed at helping building owners to do better.

These rules don’t aim to “shame” building owners, noted Lisa Colicchio, director of corporate responsibility for CBRE, the international real estate company that's a member of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Los Angeles (BOMA); Colicchio works with BOMA’s sustainability committee, which supports the ordinance proposal.

“If you don’t measure, you can’t manage it,” she said. “That’s what we tell clients.”

Even the Valley Industry and Commerce Association (VICA), an advocacy group representing some San Fernando Valley business owners, which has generally opposed new regulations, is taking a wait-and-see approach on the proposed L.A. ordinance, according to VICA president Stuart Waldman.

Key to the apparent broad support for benchmarking here is the fact that many of Los Angeles’ larger buildings are owned or operated by national corporations with properties in cities where similar ordinances are in place. “They know that the market rewards well-run, energy-efficient buildings with higher rents, higher sale prices and higher occupancy rates,” said Cliff Majersik, IMT’s executive director.

The Los Angeles benchmarking proposal responds to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s ongoing effort to create a more environmentally friendly city and to California’s greenhouse gas reduction goals (some of which are being developed as part of UCLA’s first Grand Challenge program). Last year Garcetti’s office released Los Angeles’ first comprehensive sustainability plan with goals for transportation, air quality and job creation.

A pair of new state laws should facilitate those goals. Assembly Bill 802, passed in September and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, creates statewide benchmarking guidelines that complement existing city ordinances and make it easier for large-building owners to access data on energy usage from utilities. Senate Bill 350, part of the same package, commits the state to increasing the energy efficiency in buildings by 50 percent by 2030 and requires that utilities draw 50 percent of their power from renewable energy by the same deadline.

UCLA’s Pincetl said the Energy Atlas would allow government officials and building owners to comply with these new initiatives and encourage homeowners to cut their energy use.

To read the rest of this story, go to UCLA Blueprint's 2016 Spring issue.