Energy Benchmarking: Key Policy Practices for Local Governments

Local governments across the nation are increasingly implementing energy benchmarking ordinances and voluntary programs to reduce energy use.

Nov 30, 2018 | BLOG POST

by Scott Annis, program manager, ICMA 

Over the past decade, local governments across the nation are increasingly implementing energy benchmarking ordinances and voluntary programs to reduce energy use. Energy benchmarking measures a building’s energy inputs and outputs over a certain period to create a baseline. These standard measurements can be compared to similar buildings in a locality or region and provide a better understanding of exact energy use and where improvements can be made.

With 39% of total U.S. energy consumption consumed by buildings, benchmarking is an opportunity for building owners, residents, and governments to track and understand some of the largest energy users in a locality[1]. Benchmarking policies have demonstrated energy savings, with Chicago seeing 10% in energy savings from 2010 to 2015 and the District of Columbia seeing 9% from 2010-2013[2].

Currently, local governments encourage benchmarking through two main means: mandatory policies and voluntary programs. Mandatory policies are just that, mandatory, but usually only for buildings owned by a locality or privately-owned buildings over a certain size. Voluntary programs are a call to action and allow building owners to participate on their own fruition. These two means are also practiced at the state level, and 14 states have a mandatory or voluntary program[3].

As with any local government policy, variations among communities are common. While variations occur, there are some standard components of benchmarking policies, and some typical features of these policies, listed below. To learn about policy examples, including sample language, see the “Learn More” section at the end of this blog.

  • Size Limitation. Localities often limit the size of buildings for participation to ensure that benchmarking is targeting the largest buildings that consume energy. This is often split up between governmental and private buildings. For governmental buildings, the requirements vary community by community, such as in Portland, Maine, which requires all municipal buildings; Evanston, Illinois, requires public and governmental buildings more than 10,000 square feet; and Montgomery County, Maryland, requires it for buildings more than 50,000 square feet. This size limitation also varies for private buildings—commercial and residential—and can be as low as 5,000 square feet in smaller localities. Examining building inventory in your locality will help determine the size limitation that meets your goal. Building inventory will help determine where your buildings land on size scale and can help determine size limitations to match your goals of either targeting most of the buildings, only the largest, or in the middle.
  • Phased implementation. Leading by example is a great way to build support for benchmarking in a community, and phased implementation of benchmarking policies that start with governmental buildings demonstrates buy-in and support from leadership. Phasing also allows building owners to prepare for benchmarking and allows educational opportunities from local government. Montgomery County phased in its law across three years, with the first deadline in 2015 for county buildings more than 50,000 square feet, then private buildings more than 250,000 square feet the following year, and 50,000 square feet in the last year.
  • Exemptions. Benchmarking policy often includes exemptions for buildings, with the most common being uncovered buildings. For covered building exemptions, these vary community by community but can exclude buildings of certain use like manufacturing, storage, or distribution, or where reporting can be demonstrated to cause undue financial stress. For a detailed list of sample exemptions in codes, see page 86 of this benchmarking report.
  • Reporting. Timelines of when to report collected data, what data to collect, and how to report should be included in any benchmarking policy. Reporting is most commonly done annually on the prior year data and submitted through ENERGY STAR’s Portfolio Manager, which also develops an ENERGY STAR rating. The no-cost Portfolio Manager provides at leasat 100 performance metrics in energy, water, finance, and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Disclosure and Transparency. Sharing benchmarking data with the public is a best practice and is usually done through a local government website. The data can be available in many formats, including downloadable spreadsheets, interactive maps, or benchmarking tools. Washington, D.C., shares data on private buildings annually through spreadsheets and an interactive map. Using smart meters, D.C. also updates energy use nearly real-time with updates every 15 minutes for 375 buildings. Montgomery County also has a great interactive map with numerous filters and an ability to find buildings “near me” through address search. 
  • Enforcement. To ensure participation, the majority of energy benchmarking policies contain enforcement and penalty language. Noncompliance can carry financial penalties and also verbal warnings. Evanston charges $100 for every noncompliance offense, and every month that a violation continues is deemed a separate offense. Portland will give a written warning for the first violation; after that, building owners are subject to a fine of up to $20 per day. To assist with compliance, most localities offer compliance help desks through contact information found on their benchmarking websites. These help desks and enforcement staff hours can be funded through the collection of noncompliance fees.

Voluntary programs carry many of the same components of mandatory policies except compliance. To encourage participation, voluntary programs can be framed as challenges to encourage friendly competition. Des Moines, Iowa, launched the Energize challenge in 2017, targeting buildings more than 25,000 square feet, with an end goal to reduce energy and water use 10% by 2020. The program is using annual awards and public recognition to encourage participation. The city partnered with numerous organizations for the program, including the local utility that provides technical assistance to help businesses identify energy efficiency opportunities and assist with implementation.

While not a key policy component, outreach is important to educate the public and building owners, as well as encourage participation, especially as energy benchmarking can be a new topic for people. Des Moines developed a simple two-page pdf explaining benchmarking, its benefits, how the city is leading by example, and information about the voluntary campaign. Using city or county websites is also an effective method of information delivery. A sample of local governments that share information on benchmarking via their websites includes Reno, NevadaOrlando, Florida; and Portland.

Outreach is also beneficial for local governments when success stories are shared. Case studies, social media highlights, and award programs are all great means to share stories, engage residents, and recognize benchmarking progress. Washington, D.C., features brief case studies on its website to highlight successes. In one case, how having a lower energy star score can be turned into an opportunity is showcased. The Demonet Building had an ENERGY STAR® score of 41 out of 100 in 2009. In three years, D.C. was able to increase the score to 72, with the biggest cost savings coming from altering operational hours of the building.

Whether you’re looking at embarking on implementation of mandatory or voluntary energy benchmarking or looking to update your existing policies, a wealth of available resources are listed below.

Learn More


Footnotes and References

[1] How Much Energy Is Consumed in U.S. Residential and Commercial Buildings? U.S. Energy Information Administration, May 2018,

[2] “Comparison of U.S. Commercial Building Energy Benchmarking and Transparency Policies.” IMT, 27 Sept. 2018,

[3] Interactive maps for energy benchmarking data, programs, and policies. Website.


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