Mayor Thomas M. Menino, seeking to encourage Boston businesses to be more energy conscious, is proposing a new law that would require commercial building owners to report annual energy and water use to the city, which would in turn make it public.
The proposal, which needs City Council approval, is already generating opposition from building owners, who say the city wants to shame them into expensive energy upgrades that will raise rents for tenants and hurt the commercial real estate market.
“The whole concept is sort of like the scarlet letter,” said Gregory Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, which represents commercial building owners. “Everyone wants to be first in the nation in environmental efficiency. But before we’re the lemming falling off the cliff, we have got to ask, ‘What does this really do? Is there an actual benefit?’ ”
Menino’s proposal is based on similar laws in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and other cities. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board has commissioned its own study of what has happened in other cities to determine whether such programs actually result in significant energy savings.
Menino filed his proposed ordinance Friday as part of his 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 —
The information, which would be posted online, would also include Energy Star ratings — energy-efficiency “scores” from 1 to 100 backed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Menino said the first building owner to participate in the program will be the city, which will report 2012 energy and water use for its buildings by the end of this year.
“In order for Boston to continue to be a sustainability leader, Boston’s buildings must continue to aggressively invest in energy efficiency,” Menino in a statement. “Bostonians demand buildings with high performance, and this ordinance will encourage building owners to meet that demand.”
The law would apply to large and midsize buildings and be phased in during the next few years. Commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet would be required to begin reporting in 2014. Apartment buildings over 50,000 square feet or with more than 50 units would follow in 2015.
Commercial buildings with at least 25,000 square feet would begin reporting in 2016, apartment buildings with at least 25,000 square feet or 25 units in 2017. Some buildings would be required to conduct energy audits every five years to identify opportunities for energy efficiency investments, though they would not be required to implement them.
Brian Swett, Boston’s chief of environment and energy, said measuring energy and water use has been shown to lead to greater energy efficiency, not only reducing greenhouse gases, but also lowering operating costs for building owners.
The EPA studied 35,000 buildings that gauged annual energy use against Energy Star standards between 2008 to 2011 and found they reduced energy consumption by 2.4 percent a year, Swett said. The heaviest energy users in 2008 saved twice as much energy as those that started out relatively efficient.
“Folks have got to be able to see where they can improve,” Swett said.
But Vasil argued the ordinance would put unfair burden on some building owners, particularly landlords who might have to collect energy and water use data from many tenants. Gathering and accurately analyzing so much varied information might require them to hire expensive engineering firms — costs that would ultimately be passed on in rents, Vasil said.
In San Francisco, where the city put a similar law in place about a year ago, the program so far appears to be a success, said Barry Hooper, a green building coordinator at the San Francisco Department of the Environment. He said it is still too early to give concrete numbers on how many buildings have become more energy efficient, but the reaction from businesses has been largely positive.
“The audit is especially really valuable,” Hooper said. “To abstractly know energy efficiency is a possibility is totally different from knowing, ‘In my building I could save $10,000 a month if I take such and such action’.”
Environmental advocates in Boston called Menino’s proposal welcome news.
“This ordinance looks like a recipe for the race to the top in terms of encouraging much smarter and better use of water and energy resources,” said Sue Reid, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Mayor Menino filed his ordinance. He filed it Friday.