Research | Spring 2016 Issue

Power Users: Learning to Waste Less

UCLA researchers create a new atlas to map energy use and identify ways to conserve.

By Molly Selvin

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 re- port on the energy efficiency of their structures. An ambitious new data set built at UCLA is helping to guide that effort.

The Los Angeles County 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 multi-unit 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 groups that are often at odds, such as the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions, 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 of 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 Amer- ican 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 data from 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 is also a member of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Los Angeles; 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 As- sociation (VICA), an advocacy group represent- ing 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 greenhousegas reduction goals (some of which are being developed as part of UCLA’s Grand Challenge program, fea- tured elsewhere in this issue). 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 Sep- tember and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, creates statewide benchmarking guidelines that com- plement 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 utilities to 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.

“SB 350 cannot be really well implemented without this kind of data,” she added. “You have to know where you are going to invest to get the biggest savings in energy use over time.”

For instance, the Atlas found that the most inefficient buildings aren’t the oldest but rather structures from the 1970s. Pincetl attributes this discovery, which she called surprising, in part to the county’s rapid suburbanization during that period and intense competition among construction companies. Builders put up houses and offices quickly, she said, and often used cheaper, less energy-efficient materials — drywall instead of the lath and plaster found in older structures.

Energy use in Los Angeles County also varies considerably by community as well as by income. Malibu residents are the heaviest per-capita users, while those who live in Avalon on Catalina Island use the least. Homes in many low-income neighborhoods are less efficient per square foot than in wealthier communities. But higher-income neighborhoods as a whole consume three times more energy than poorer communities.

These findings suggest strategies for encouraging building owners to save more energy by making changes to their properties. For example, financial subsidies could incentivize low-income residents to weatherize older homes. Wealthier residents in larger homes, who are often large water users, might respond to utility rates that tie usage to a home’s square footage. Commercial building owners might respond best to a package of utility rebates and financing for energy upgrades.

 But Pincetl stressed, “We’re not policy makers. Our job is to open up the realm of inequality and think about energy policy in a more data-driven manner.”

The Grand Challenge

The Atlas emerged from Pincetl’s frustration with the absence of such data and from her long involvement in environmental research. At UCLA she directs the California Center for Sustainable Communities, whose mission is to produce “actionable science that improves the sustainability of urban systems.”

The Center is one of several campus institutes, involving more than 100 UCLA faculty members, taking part in UCLA’s Grand Challenge to achieve energy and water sustainability in Los Angeles County by 2050. (The push for sustainability is one of two challenges issued by Chancellor Gene Block in 2012; the other marshals campus researchers to better understand, prevent and treat depression.)

“The idea of the Grand Challenge is to hold Los Angeles out as a model city,” noted Ann Carlson, the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law at UCLA. “Understanding everything we can about energy use within our borders is incredibly important, and the Atlas is a foundational element in that effort.” she said. Carlson co-directs the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, whose mission is to develop and promote tools for environmental policy makers.

Work on the Energy Atlas began in 2011. The UCLA research team acquired address-level energy consumption data from 2006 to 2010 from the major utilities in Los Angeles County. They matched this electricity and natural gas usage information with assessor records and census data, linking address-level energy consumption to building characteristics. Analysis of these 500 million records produced a map of how much energy is used where in the county. (Five cities — Azusa, Cerritos, the City of Industry, Pasadena and Vernon — are not included because research- ers were unable to obtain data from the smaller utilities that serve those communities.)

The Atlas data is downloadable but privacy-protected; users can view neighborhood-level data but not the characteristics of individual properties.

The project cost $500,000. Funders included the Southern California Regional Energy Network and the County of Los Angeles Office of Sustainability. A number of policymakers and energy experts and other local organizations also contributed funds as well as advice.

Pincetl, 63 and an urban planner by training, regards the Energy Atlas as a work in progress. Her team is now adding 2015 data on energy use and emissions, and has begun to look at the energy profiles of public schools. By focusing on Los Angeles County, the Atlas already includes a third of California’s residents, and Pincetl hopes eventually to expand the project to cover the entire state.

In the meantime, Carlson believes that reaching the ambitious sustainability goal UCLA set for the county will involve behavioral as well as technological change. The drought, for example, has caused Californians to significantly cut their water use. But maintaining those reductions will be hard, she said. The same holds true for energy use and conservation.

“It’s easy to say turn off the lights, but most people don’t notice if their electricity bill is smaller,” she noted. However, as energy prices rise, people might become more sensitive to the relationship between use and cost.

Carlson also believes that sustained savings will result when building codes incorporate more energy efficiencies into building design — for example, lights that turn off when no one is in the room and thermostats that automatically adjust to changing room temperatures.

That’s where the Atlas comes in. Reform begins with data.

Molly Selvin

Molly Selvin

Molly Selvin, a legal historian and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Post navigation



Changing Habits, Saving Power

How to convince consumers to track their energy usage and reduce it — the study of incentives.