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Boston energy, water use law approved

The City Council approved an ordinance Wednesday that will require large commercial and residential building owners to report annual energy and water use to the city, which in turn will make the information public.

The measure was spearheaded by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and backed by environmental advocates in hopes it will lead property owners to make buildings more energy efficient. It passed on a 9-to-4 vote, despite opposition by real estate interests.

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“It’s frustrating,” said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which represents commercial property owners. “We feel like we’ve done our best to educate and inform, but Boston politics has gotten in the way of that.”

Vasil’s group earlier this year commissioned a report that surveyed other cities and found the benefits of such laws are questionable while costs are high. He said the Boston ordinance will impose unnecessary burdens and expenses on property owners, which may need to hire consultants or conduct audits to meet the requirements. Those costs, he said, would probably be passed onto tenants.

Brian Swett, the city’s chief of environment and energy, disputed that the ordinance will significantly increase costs. He said the city estimates that commercial property owners will spend about $838 million on energy efficiency by 2020, much of which is regular maintenance and scheduled replacement of equipment.

“There is absolutely nothing in this ordinance that requires a financial investment in energy efficiency from property owners,” said Swett.

The new law requires annual reports on energy and water usage from commercial buildings over 35,000 square feet and apartment buildings over 35 units. The law will be phased in though 2017, with the first properties, commercial buildings 50,000 square feet or larger, reporting next year.

Menino first proposed the ordinance in February as part of his administration’s efforts to combat climate change, which has been accelerated by greenhouse gas emissions — pollutants created when oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels are burned for heat or making electricity. The administration said buildings in Boston are responsible for approximately 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, and hopes to reduce pollution by cutting energy consumption.

Cities including New York, Washington, and San Francisco, have passed similar energy monitoring laws.

Swett said measuring usage is proven to increase energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and lower operating costs for building owners.

An Environmental Protection Agency study of 35,000 buildings that monitored energy performance and measured it against EPA-backed Energy Star efficiency ratings, found overall they reduced energy consumption by 2.4 percent annually between 2008 to 2011. Boston will also use Energy Star ratings, which score each building for efficiency on a scale from 1 to 100.

Buildings with Energy Star ratings below 75 will have to conduct energy audits every five years to identify ways to improve efficiency, though they will not be required to make the improvements.

Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard University who conducted the study of local energy efficiency laws for commercial property owners, said an audit of a 50,000-square-foot building could cost about $35,000.

“Many audits would be required for owners who have no intent to make investments in energy efficiency, no matter what the audit says,” he wrote in testimony to the council. “That is a costly economic waste for no gain for the economy or for the environment.”

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