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The Energy-Benchmarking Grades Are Out. Do They Really Matter?

Jennifer V. Hughes in Green Ideas on January 7, 2014

Bay Terrace Cooperative Section I, Randall House, 63 E. 9th Street

Jan. 7, 2014

Warren Schreiber, board president of Bay Terrace Cooperative Section 1, a 200-unit garden apartment complex in Queens, says he was not surprised by the "D" his co-op earned with an EUI score of 248.2. The co-op board is now considering submetering, which would require unit-owners to pay for the power they use, hopefully convincing them to use less. Schreiber notes that retro-commissioning of the heating system is also under consideration, but the board isn't ready to pull the trigger on a major job right now.

Conversely, Sylvia Shapiro's 229-unit cond-op Randall House, at 63 East 9th Street scored an 84, earning "A" from the city. But Shapiro is underwhelmed. "We know the circumstances of our building and it's just not terribly relevant," she says. No matter the score, the cond-op board knew it would pursue an oil-to-gas conversion, an ongoing process that has been stymied by issues with Con Edison.

"You do this benchmarking because it's required by law," says Shapiro, a board member, "but it has zero impact on us to date, and it has just spawned an industry of energy service-providers."

Taking the Long View

Others argue that critics of the program, like Shapiro, are shortsighted. The results of Local Law 84 of 2009 are not meant to stand alone but are part of a larger vision intended to make the Big Apple a healthier place to live: According to a 2013 New York City report, 75 to 80 percent of New York's carbon emissions come from buildings, compared with 39 percent nationally.

In an e-mail, John Lee, deputy director of PlaNYC Green Buildings & Energy Efficiency, part of the City's Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, points out that the goal is to educate the energy users. "There are costs associated with higher intensity energy utilization," he writes, "and the consumer's decisions should be afforded that information."

Some critics argue that letter grades don't currently taken into account vast differences in building design. A complex with three entrances and three elevators is very different from a tower with one entry and one elevator, observes Stephen Vernon, president of the board at a 111-unit, three-building co-op in Washington Heights. The letter grades don't factor in whether a building has a commercial tenant that might be using a lot of power, and they don't consider the type of resident — he may be a renter who cares little about the building's long-term financial health, or she might be a senior citizen who is home more often and therefore uses more power.

City Acknowledges

The city is aware of the problem. "It should be understood that this is a very rough comparative measure and does not normalize for the vast differences in building types and mixed uses," Lee says. The problem may be solved, he adds, when federal Environmental Protection Agency makes major changes to create a multifamily scoring system for its Energy Star ratings. That move is expected early this year.

Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, an energy-efficiency think tank, agrees. His group advises the city on the ratings system, and he describes the letter grades as a work in progress. "The city is moving toward an apples to apples comparison," he says. "Right now all buildings are compared against each other, so you have a luxury high-rise on the Upper East Side compared to a two-story walk-up in the outer boroughs."


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