Boston, Massachusetts. Credit: Robert Laliberte / Flickr / Creative Commons

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The Building Energy Retrofit Resource Hub is a partnership with utility Eversource designed to help further reduce the city’s carbon emissions from buildings.

The city of Boston and utility company Eversource have launched an information hub to help the owners of large buildings cut their energy usage and contribute to the city’s effort to go carbon neutral by 2050. 

“The idea and the hope is that this one-stop-shopping approach is a way of making it easier for those types of properties to access the resources available,” said Ben Silverman, climate and buildings program manager for the city of Boston. 

The new offering, known as the Building Energy Retrofit Resource Hub, is a service provided by Eversource. Owners or managers of buildings greater than 35,000 square feet or comprising at least 35 units can reach out to a dedicated contact at Eversource who will help them analyze their buildings’ needs and learn about efficiency options. The utility will also offer vendor referrals, share information about specialized technology, and help customers figure out the best way to finance proposed changes. 

Boston is already considered a leader in energy efficiency. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recently ranked Boston as one of the top 10 most efficient cities in the country, second only to New York City. However, Boston still produces more than 6.4 million metric tons of greenhouse gas each year, and buildings are responsible for more than 70% of these emissions.

The city’s Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance requires large buildings to report their energy and water use each year. The goal is to make building owners conscious of their energy use and to give them a way to compare their own consumption with similar properties, locally and nationwide. Ideally, the information will generate a sort of positive peer pressure, allowing property owners to see the efficiency — and savings — that are possible. 

The city statute also requires building owners to complete a major energy savings action or an energy efficiency assessment every five years. Currently, most building owners choose to meet this requirement by undergoing an energy audit, rather than taking a direct action to boost efficiency. Part of the reason for this choice, experts said, is that many — perhaps most — building operators don’t have the specialized knowledge or the time in their schedules to research, design, and execute a comprehensive efficiency plan.

Soon, however, most building owners will have no choice but to take action. Boston is in the planning stages of developing a building performance standard, which will mandate ongoing reductions to energy consumption.

“The city will be setting specific emissions targets for buildings that would require that they very drastically lower their emissions,” Silverman said. “It is a very big part of our vision for how we’re going to get on track toward carbon neutrality.”

The operators of some larger, institutional properties — hospitals or large high-rises, for example — may already have the capacity to deal with the capital planning and logistics that will go into meeting these new goals, Silverman said. Owners of midsize properties, however, are less likely to have the in-house knowledge and bandwidth to make such big changes. That’s where the resource hub comes in. 

“That’s exactly the kind of scenario we want to address,” said Tilak Subrahmanian, vice president of energy efficiency for Eversource. “You know that you have a problem, but you have no idea where to start. Call us.”

The resource hub services are offered free of charge, paid for by energy efficiency program funds that come from a surcharge on utility customers’ bills, revenues from the forward capacity market, and the state’s share of Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative proceeds. Customers will pay for implementing solutions, though there are many state and federal incentive programs that can cut these costs as well. 

One of the anticipated benefits of increased efficiency should be lowered costs for low-income families as well as improved indoor air quality for households that have often faced poor environmental conditions. However, Silverman said, the city is realizing that the majority of residents in environmental justice communities actually live in smaller multifamily buildings that will not be subject to the performance standard or meet the eligibility requirements for taking advantage of the resource hub. 

“That’s going to require additional work,” Silverman said. “We have identified it as one of our priorities.”

To complement the resource hub and the upcoming performance standards, Boston has also been promoting Building Operator Certification for building maintenance and operations staff in the city. The certification program trains personnel to understand efficiency systems and use them to their greatest effect. The goal is to make sure large buildings continue to be run efficiently even after initial retrofits. 

The resource hub approach is catching on in a few places, said John Balfe, buildings and community solutions manager for the nonprofit Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships. Boston’s neighbor Cambridge introduced a similar service last year, assisting buildings greater than 25,000 square feet, which are responsible for more than half the city’s emissions. In Washington, D.C., a high-performance building hub launched this fall. 

These kinds of resources are likely to become more common in coming years, Balfe said.

“These types of hubs are really getting at the heart of the problem,” he said. “It’s an exciting new thing that we’ll see a lot more of, especially as more cities are adopting building energy performance standards.”

However, the hub model will not be a good fit for all municipalities, particularly those without a high concentration of larger buildings, Subrahmanian said. But Eversource is working closely with the towns in its service area to tailor energy efficiency programs to their specific needs, he said. Over the summer, for example, the utility was working with the city of Somerville to figure out how to reach out to senior citizens and help them better manage their energy use.

Regardless of the specific program, efficiency will continue to be a priority for utilities and municipalities as they attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions and realize savings for their residents, Subrahmanian said. 

“The cheapest source of energy is the energy you don’t use,” he said.

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.