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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Lawrence Harmon

Labeling plan isn’t worth the energy

Mayor Menino wants building owners in Boston to collect data on their energy use and lay it at his feet. The mayor, who has pledged to make Boston the greenest city in America, is playing catch-up with San Francisco, New York, and other cities that require building owners to report water use, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. But Menino is also playing around with property values and the privacy of tenants.

The proposed ordinance would cover existing commercial buildings larger than 25,000 square feet and residential buildings with 25 or more units. Owners would be required to use a federal EPA software tool — Energy Star Portfolio Manager — to track their buildings’ overall energy use and that of their tenants. The information would then be converted into an energy performance rating — measured against a national benchmark — on a scale of 1 to 100. City Hall would post the ratings online. And owners and tenants who fail to report would face fines.

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It gets more intrusive. The plan requires nearly all but the top quarter of performers on the Energy Star efficiency scorecard to conduct audits every five years as a way to identify potential upgrades. The audits alone could cost upwards of $25,000 for a 50,000-square-foot commercial property, according to a California Energy Commission publication.

Menino’s political operatives will push city councilors to jump on the mayor’s green bandwagon in the days leading up to a March 28 hearing on the proposed ordinance. They should resist.

Energy labeling and disclosure laws have been floating around Europe for a while. A draft report by the Boston office of the Analysis Group, an international consulting firm, pointed to a study from Holland showing that labeling has no effect on energy use. Surveys of other European programs yielded similar conclusions. And there is little performance data from American cities on the ability of energy labeling programs to promote greater energy efficiency and lower costs.

“There is currently no real evidence that these mandatory programs lead to any changes whatsoever in energy use,’’ reads the report.

Harvard environmental economist Robert Stavins, who co-authored the report, warns that the results of energy disclosure ordinances often reflect the intensity of energy use by individual tenants, not the physical integrity of the building itself. “The rankings are prone to a tremendous amount of error,’’ said Stavins.

Some may dismiss the report based on its sponsor — the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

That would be a mistake. The real estate group generally takes a measured approach to regulatory efforts that affect its members. In the recent past, the group worked with city officials on legislation that holds the owners of problem properties accountable for their tenants and blessed a bill requiring banks to maintain regular maintenance on foreclosed properties.

Gregory Vasil, president of the real estate board, said the city’s environmental department snubbed his efforts to weigh in on the energy disclosure legislation during the draft stage.

“It’s troubling,’’ said Vasil, a former environmental regulator. “Boston’s environmental department seems determined to dictate the solution.’’ The Retailers Association of Massachusetts is also up in arms over what it says could amount to $90,000 in annual fines for a commercial building owner who fails to comply with the energy disclosure requirements.

Brian Swett, the city’s environmental chief, said building ratings are similar to consumer-friendly fuel economy stickers on cars. The ordinance, said Swett, is consistent with Menino’s climate action goal of a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. And it’s good for business, he said, citing a federal EPA analysis of 35,000 buildings nationwide that showed an average 2.4 percent decrease in costs by tracking energy performance.

Still, the ordinance comes across as oppressive in Boston where the majority of large buildings are of older construction. Even some business leaders aligned with the energy labeling effort are urging the Menino administration to lower the energy performance requirements for older buildings and provide an affordable alternative to the expensive audits.

The city should go one better by exempting all residential buildings from the ordinance. Landlords shouldn’t be mucking around in their tenants’ toaster ovens. And multi-family residences aren’t a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in Boston in the first place.

Menino, meanwhile, keeps pledging to “greenovate’’ Boston. Aggravate Boston is more like it.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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