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Setting an energy standard

Madison’s once contentious energy benchmarking proposal is back as a voluntary program that has the support of the business community.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

Sustainability. Green energy. Carbon footprint. Energy efficiency.

These are all popular buzzwords, but as recently as last year they were also a bone of contention between the City of Madison and the local business community. That’s because the city was pushing an energy benchmarking ordinance as part of its overall sustainability plan, which would have mandated owners of commercial buildings larger than 25,000 square feet and apartments with more than 35 units — along with city buildings larger than 15,000 square feet — to publicly report their energy performance or face fines of up to $1,000 annually.

When last we left the energy benchmarking ordinance in early 2014, it had been “placed on file,” says Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, a leading opponent of the original proposal, which is a polite way of saying it didn’t have enough support.

What’s happened in the interim, however, is an exercise in just how much can be accomplished when local government and business leaders work in partnership to achieve a common goal.

From conflict to collaboration

Brandon says a big reason the business community balked at the original energy benchmarking proposal was because as it was initially written, it not only would have mandated that owners of buildings over a certain size and their tenants disclose their confidential utility information to the city (and ultimately then, the public), it also required an annual audit that had significant costs associated with it.

“Many businesses were already asking questions about how they could be more environmentally sustainable, while also maintaining profitability,” Brandon says. “They aren’t actually diametrically opposed to each other; there are ways to be both sustainable and profitable, but for anything to be sustainable, you have to have people wanting to do it rather than being told they have to do it.”

After the business community expressed its concerns about the proposal to the Madison Common Council, an ad hoc committee was formed to reset the discussion and tackle the issue from a place of collaboration rather than conflict.

“It was supposed to be a three-month process and turned out to be almost a year,” Brandon notes. “Through that, we interviewed other cities that had mandatory programs, we talked about voluntary programs, heard lots of testimony, and had a great, healthy debate. In the end, a supermajority of the group voted to recommend a voluntary program that would be based on a public-private partnership instead of a mandatory program as originally proposed.”

That voluntary program was approved by the city council at its Sept. 1, 2015 meeting. That resolution said the City of Madison Voluntary Energy Use Benchmarking Program, when combined with other efforts, will work to reduce overall building energy consumption by 50% by 2030 in public and private sector buildings. The program is to include an outreach/education plan, incentives for compliance and upgrades, and a third-party private entity that will collect and store the data.

The city assessor’s office will produce a report ranking all commercial buildings by total square footage, which didn’t previously exist. Meanwhile, the city engineer will develop a voluntary public/private energy benchmarking program by Jan. 1, 2016 that would include an annual report on benchmarking goals to be reviewed by the city’s Sustainable Madison Committee and presented to the common council.

To meet the program’s objectives of reducing energy consumption and related business costs, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce will also lend its support to the program through targeted promotion and education to the business community. The city agreed to assist with and develop incentives and resources where necessary.


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