It's not often that a $12 million investment in research can significantly advance a $60 billion market, and even rarer that anyone given a choice would decide to scrap it.
But that's exactly what's happening with the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), an important but otherwise obscure issue that I'm happy Leanne Tobias brought to light last month. As a result of Congressional funding priorities, it looks like both regulators and building professionals may be stranded with outdated information, hampering green building efforts across the country.
If you look at the market activity a new CBECS would unleash, it may be the deal of a lifetime in terms of ROI. But with Congressional inaction threatening one of the bright spots in an otherwise tough construction market, it's worth considering how the green building industry could move forward without Congress.
From my perspective, it's too big for any one group to tackle, but a public-private approach involving private companies, trade groups, academics and the public sector may be just what we need to carry out the equivalent of a Green Buildings Census and keep the industry on solid footing.
The most recent CBECS data, from 2003, has been crucial to the green building sector. Government programs like the Energy Star Program for Building & Manufacturing Plants use it to develop standards and incentives. Suppliers of energy efficient technology, including my company, use it to help establish comparative benchmarks for our customers and identify opportunities for greater efficiency.
Armed with accurate data and models, independent contractors advise customers and deploy technology across the country, saving energy and helping building owners earn returns on their investments. Even with smart meters beginning to stream real-time data on energy use, there is no replacing the CBECS, which provides unprecedented granularity on energy consumption trends and baselines in a wide variety of building types.
Members of the bipartisan High Performance Building Congressional Caucus are encouraging continuation of the program's modest funding, but it's tough to be optimistic about its prospects. So many stakeholders are positioned to benefit from the data, though, that it's time to look at a new way to approach the survey.
To support the government's role in developing the CBECS, industry organizations could establish a purpose-driven consortium that taps into their existing stakeholders. Working together with government groups, organizations such as NIBS, NEMA, BOMA, the Green Building Alliance and ASHRAE, among others, could contribute knowledge and resources to compile the kind of accurate, granular data that meets the needs of all parties.
It will be hard for the private sector to undertake a CBECS-style study on its own, but in the absence of Congressional authorization for the EIA to act, the combination of public and private funds and knowledge could be the best way through the impasse.
It's fair to say that a new public-private undertaking would entail a level of complexity, and the best case scenario would involve the 2011 CBECS progressing as planned.
But if political gridlock means no EIA-issued CBECS study this year, a new approach to compiling this essential data may be the best option, especially if the alternative is to wait until 2015. The information is too valuable, and the country has too much to gain, to wait another four years without a constructive path forward.
Photo CC-licensed by Michael Kuhn.