Ft. Collins, CO grades buildings for energy efficiency, provides info to renters

, jmarmaduke@coloradoan.com, 9 Aug 2016, cross-posted from The Coloradan

City staff hope a new Fort Collins program will give apartment- and house-hunters a better idea of what their utility bills will look like before they sign on the dotted line.

The Building Energy Scoring and Disclosure program, much-anticipated by local energy efficiency advocates, received its first influx of funding this spring when City Council agreed to fund a director position for it with money from the Light and Power fund. That person will be paid $89,000 a year and begin work in mid-September, city officials said.

While the city has hired a director, officials don’t yet have a vision for the program.

“At this point, we have more questions than answers,” said John Phelan, energy services manager for Fort Collins Utilities.

The basic concept is to choose a scoring system to rank commercial and residential buildings on their energy efficiency and start assigning scores to Fort Collins buildings.

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The scoring system could be letters or numbers. It could be a pre-existing system – the Department of Energy uses a 1-10 scale that compares a building to others on the market — or something new. Scores could be mandatory or encouraged.

The city will likely start with larger commercial buildings and extend the program to residential buildings, Phelan said.

“If you’re going to buy a building, it’d be nice to know whether it’s a high energy-user or a low one, and right now there’s no way to determine that,” he said. “What has to be designed is, what buildings do we start with, and how long do we take to phase those in? In other cities, that was a pretty long process.”

Another potential program feature is energy disclosure requirements that would require large energy users to make information about their energy usage available to the public. But Phelan said disclosure requirements could present data privacy issues and might not have a worthwhile impact on energy use.

Community-wide energy scoring for homes is rare in the United States, having cropped up only in Austin, Texas, and a few other larger cities.

But Fort Collins shouldn’t be daunted by the task, said Fred Kirsch, director of the local advocacy group Community for Sustainable Energy.

“It’s a right-to-know issue,” he said. “Buyers and renters have a right to know how efficient or deficient a home is before they move in.”

Disclosing the scores in building advertisements is a hope — but not a guarantee — for the program. Kirsch said that information is essential.

“If you’re a tenant and you go through everything to get a lease, and then five minutes before you sign it they say, ‘Oh, by the way, this house scores a 2 out of 10 for energy efficiency,’ that’s too late,” he said.

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Kirsch also has his fingers crossed that city staff uses a scoring system where the highest score indicates a building is a net zero energy user, meaning it produces as much or more energy than it uses. That kind of scoring system would improve innovation in energy efficiency, he said.

An obvious issue with the program’s short-term efficacy is Fort Collins’ occupancy rate of 99.8 percent. In a seller’s market, energy efficiency isn’t exactly priority No. 1 for renters and buyers.

“Right now, the market is such that if someone can find a house for under $300,000, they’ll get it, regardless of its energy efficiency,” Phelan said. “That may limit the benefit, certainly in the short-run. But this isn’t a short-run program.”

Next up, the program director will work with other city staff and community stakeholders to design the program. A project charter released before the end of 2016 should answer some questions about the program’s design and timeline, said Lisa Rosintoski, Fort Collins Utilities’ customer connections manager.

Energy efficiency is a key component of Fort Collins’ Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent of 2005 levels by 2020, 80 percent by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.