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Study questions usefulness of mayor’s energy proposal

Programs that require commercial property owners to monitor and publicly report energy and water consumption in their buildings impose financial burdens on the owners with no guarantee of producing significant energy savings, according to a report commissioned by commercial real estate groups to be released Thursday.

The report is in response to a recent proposal by Mayor Thomas M. Menino to require such monitoring and reporting to promote energy efficiency. The report, authored by Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University, studied experiences in other cities with similar programs and found that any energy savings are likely to be negligible.

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“The benefits it achieves may be nil and the cost possibly significant,” said Stavins, who conducted the study in conjunction with Analysis Group, a Boston consulting firm.

The study was funded by the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which represents local building owners, and The Building Owners and Managers Association, a national trade group based in Washington. Both groups oppose monitoring and reporting rules.

Menino, encouraging efficiency, proposed an ordinance last month that would require commercial building owners to report annual energy and water use to the city, which would make it public. The law would apply to large and mid-size buildings and be phased in through 2017.

Based on similar laws in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and other cities, the proposal is part of the Menino administration’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. In addition to energy and water use, building owners would have to report the emissions — pollutants produced when oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels are burned for heat or making electricity.

The Boston City Council will hold a hearing on the ordinance on Thursday.

Brian Swett, the city’s chief of environment and energy, defended the mayor’s initiative. He cited a 2012 Environmental Protection Agency report that found buildings that consistently monitored its energy performance while measuring it against EPA-backed Energy Star efficiency ratings reduced annual energy consumption by 2.4 percent annually between 2008 and 2011.

But Stavins, after examining national, state, and municipal energy efficiency policies that target commercial and residential buildings, disagreed. The report found that requirements put in place by cities adopting such programs vary, and information about their effectiveness and costs to property owners is incomplete.

At this stage, the report said, best practices for this type of program have yet to be established.

“Boston should not be another guinea pig until some definitive evidence shows that laws like these actually work,” said Gregory Vasil, president of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

The report also questioned whether Energy Star or similar ratings should be used for buildings.

Unlike appliances, to which Energy Star ratings are most frequently applied, buildings can characteristics that make fair comparisons between them difficult. For example, Stavins said, a historic building might be limited in the renovations that can be undertaken, leading to a lower Energy Star ratings.

Low Energy Star ratings, in turn, could hurt property values, adding to the financial losses of building owners, the report said.

Energy Star “does not account for factors like the age, historic status, or location of a building, which are critical,” he said.

“They collect those things, but it’s not reflected in the score. In Boston, we are a very old city relative to the average across the United States, so we should look at that score as subject to great uncertainty.”

Alyssa Edes can be reached at alyssa.edes@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @alyssaedes.
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