Don't Underestimate the Power of Information in Pursuing Sustainability

Don't Underestimate the Power of Information in Pursuing Sustainability

Image CC licensed by Flickr user OiMax. http://www.flickr.com/photos/oimax/462747317/in/set-72157594588119939/

Over the last few weeks I've been writing about the importance of feedback loops and covering new releases in building management and monitoring software. So, it seems like a good time to talk about the importance of information, which is the common currency of feedback loops and building management systems. This week's New Normal system Leverage Point (No. 6) in Donella Meadows' "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System" is Changing the Structure of Information Flows.

An interesting experiment conducted in the residential sector found that energy consumption in a subdivision of essentially identical homes varied by up to 30 percent depending on whether the electricity meter was located in the basement or in the front hall.

However, information alone-prices in particular-isn't sufficient. For example, pricing information on fisheries and endangered animal parts results in the perverse incentive that, as rare creatures get more expensive, competition increases to harvest the remaining stocks.

In the last year, LEED has come under criticism for not basing its ratings on actual energy use. Indeed, the USGBC-commissioned New Buildings Institute study of energy use in LEED Certified buildings found that less than a quarter of the buildings surveyed had records of actual energy use. This is pretty sad, considering that the owners and managers of LEED Certified properties are nominally the crème de la crème of the real estate industry.

Already concerned about improving the linkage between LEED certification and measured resource consumption, the USGBC developed and released a requirement that LEED-certified buildings report their energy and emissions profile as part the LEED 3.0 package. Now, proving the adage that "no good deed goes unpunished," Shari Shapiro has written how lawyers are now grumbling that LEED's reporting requirement may result in increased liability exposure and slow the uptake of the system. 

The right kind of information is that which supports the right kind of action, perhaps with a dash of good old-fashioned public shame. Meadows wrote about the power of the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). The TRI was instituted in 1986, over the howls of protest from the chemical industry, and by 1990 emissions released into the environment decreased by 40 percent! One firm in the Top 10 largest polluters reduced emissions by 90 percent just to get off the list.

Maybe it's time for a "Carbon Release Inventory" or an "Energy Consumption Index" for buildings. A CRI/ECI would require building owners or utilities to publish their energy and carbon emissions. Then it would be relatively simple for watchdog groups to publish "Dirty Dozen" types of lists.

Deceptively simple on its surface, such an index probably would need some normalization for type of occupancy, building size, etc. Since it would be local/regional in nature, we wouldn't need to worry about variations in climate as an explanatory element. Given the hidden complexity of the task and the requisite reluctance from building owners and developers, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for these indices.

The Energy Passport is a related idea that could be implemented much more easily. Conceived in the early '90s by Dr. Yuri Matrosov of the Moscow Center for Energy Efficiency (CENEf), Energy Passport programs were first adopted in Moscow, then in Germany, which is now pushing for it to be implemented in the EU as a whole.

The initial Energy Passport is based on modeled energy use and then actual energy use is compared each year with predicted use, which then could be accessed by tenants and others. Clearly, comparing actual energy use with predicted energy use, as well as consumption trends over time, would give designers and developers an incentive to get the prediction right in the first place (parenthetical note, without clear modeling rules it is shockingly easy to game the results of energy models), as well as provide a clear benchmark for operators to manage their buildings more closely.

This is all well and good for owner-occupied buildings, but multi-tenant facilities will need to complement a building-level metric with proper lease documents (see the new "Green Lease Guide" released by BOMA), sub-metering equipment and other infrastructure. The Cascadia Chapter of the USGBC has just sponsored an interesting report on code and other structural barriers to so-called Living Buildings. Doubtless many of these recommendations would improve the information feedback of our wasteful ways to building owners and occupants.

The fact that energy saving projects worth millions of dollars of are sprouting up everywhere -- from Dell (imagine that … we can save energy by turning off computers that aren't being used!) to naval bases in the middle of the Pacific -- demonstrates the power of simply making energy and carbon a topic of discussion. Imagine the impact of providing real, useful and targeted information to energy professionals designing and operating our buildings.

Rob Watson is the executive editor of GreenerBuildings.com. You can reach Rob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @KilrWat.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user OiMax.

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