No more CBECS…Now what?

In April’s budget compromise, Congress cut the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) FY 2011 funding by 14 percent. That equates to a roughly $15.2 million reduction, forcing “adjustments” to many of EIA’s energy data, analysis and forecasting programs. Programs that guide an energy market worth more than $1 trillion.Among the programmatic cuts is the total suspension of work on the 2011 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), the nation’s only source of statistical data on energy use and related characteristics of commercial buildings. The cuts create a deep void for credible data on building energy use and pose serious challenges for the green building sector. The timing is especially bad as the industry is in the early stages of a fundamental shift from relying on predicted energy savings estimates to value the energy efficiency measures installed in a building to assessing energy performance based on actual measured data.As the primary source of benchmarking data in the U.S., CBECS has been instrumental to the process of setting appropriate energy efficiency goals for commercial buildings. EPA’s ENERGY STAR program uses CBECS data as a baseline for initiatives like Portfolio Manager, which allows users to compare energy performance between similar buildings. In turn, third-party certification programs like LEED and Green Globes, as well as municipalities like Washington D.C. and New York, rely on ENERGY STAR ratings to set energy parameters and implement energy efficiency programs.CBECS has been the standard for years, but not without limitations. For one, the data is collected only every four years; findings can then take two years to analyze and release. If any part of the survey goes awry, the data can’t be released, as evidenced by the botched 2007 CBECS. Therefore, at any given time an entire industry is basing decisions on data that is five-plus years old. That’s a long time for an industry that increasingly relies on finely-tuned technologies and data to achieve optimal energy performance.Moreover, with the failure of the 2007 CBECS and the cancellation of the 2011 survey, we simply cannot know the true impact of advances in the green building movement and the major escalation in utility and state efficiency programs over the last decade. That’s a problem.If we want science-based solutions for reducing energy use in buildings, we must have data that informs the industry about the degree to which the latest technologies and low-energy design strategies are working. It is imperative to have the appropriate energy performance data to help the market move forward.There is hope, however. The Congressionally chartered National Institute for Building Science (NIBS) is proposing a High-Performance Building Data Collection Initiative, which NBI supports, as a path forward for collecting and disseminating data.  Although less applicable for more general energy regulatory purposes, the NIBS initiative would provide building and energy efficiency professionals with the energy data necessary to achieve national objectives for high-performance buildings.Additionally, the Green Building Alliance—now in consort with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)—has been working for several years to develop their Database for Analyzing Sustainable and High Performance Buildings (DASH), a publicly available collection of data about building operation, maintenance and performance, especially for green, sustainable and high-performance buildings. Guided primarily by practitioners, DASH could now play a role in maintaining contact with industry professionals and identifying gaps in currently collected building data, thereby serving as an important tool for the NIBS initiative.Although troubling, it looks as though the CBECS suspension could mobilize industry-wide conversations about defining the criteria, methods and dissemination tools most needed to drive energy performance. The goal now is to credibly—and expediently—identify the essential data needs to continue our fundamental shift toward measuring the success of high-performance buildings.