2016-12-23 / Community

City council approves energy benchmarking plan

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council gave initial approval to an energy benchmarking plan that would compel 30 property owners in the Mill Creek area to report energy and water usage data to the city.

The program was introduced last spring as part of an overhaul to zoning in the Mill Creek shopping district, designed to transform the area from a 1950s-style shopping plaza to a mix of apartments and retail shops. In order that it not sink the entire zoning package, the benchmarking program was presented as a separate proposal. It was sent back for additional tweaking after the planning board raised concerns over privacy.

If adopted, benchmarking would be piloted in the new Village Extension, Broadway Corridor, and Mill Creek Core zoning districts, and would apply to all municipal and non-residential buildings in those areas larger than 5,000 square feet, as well as any apartment or condominium complex with 10 or more units. There are no qualifying residential buildings in the two zoning districts created earlier this year. However, the energy reporting requirement would also apply to city-owned buildings of more than 5,000 square feet located anywhere in South Portland.

According to South Portland’s sustainability coordinator, Julie Rosenbach, owners of these properties would be required to track their building’s energy and water consumption using a web-based Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool, and report data to her office on an annual basis.

The data would be used to calculate “energy use intensity” in each building, based on square footage, greenhouse gas emissions and other metrics. Each building would then get an “Energy Star score” intended to compare it to similar buildings nationwide. For example, a score of 30 would mean the building is 30 percent more efficient than others of its kinds, while a score of 75 or higher would qualify the property for “Energy Star certification.”

If granted final passage at the next regular city council meeting, Jan. 2, the property owners would have to begin reporting energy use data for their buildings starting May 1, 2018. For the first year, the city would only reveal which owners had complied with the mandate. However, starting in September 2019, and annually thereafter, Rosenbach’s office would begin releasing information on all covered properties to the public.

Asked at Monday’s council meeting why the city should release the data at all, Rosenbach said doing so would “incentivize people’s behavior,” leading them to make improvements that might generate a high score for greater energy efficiency.

“It’s also good consumer information for prospective tenants,” said Planning Director Tex Haeuser.

As a zoning amendment, the proposal will require five yes votes for final passage. However, that appears likely as only one councilor raised a hand against the idea at the Dec. 19 meeting.

“I understand that it’s up to all of us to be responsible stewards of the earth, but I cannot support something that forces people to report what’s going on in their private property,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “It just doesn’t feel right in my gut.”

Cohen said she would support the program if it was voluntary.

Mayor Patti Smith, however, said she “whole-heartedly” supported the proposal as presented. She compared the program to the energy audit the city undertook with Seimans Energy several years ago.

“That allowed us to make smarter choices that helped us decide if we were going to invest money to improve a building or tear it down,” she said. “So, I see this as important information for the future that we all benefit from.”

Calling global climate change “the biggest existential crisis we’ve faced as a species, ever,” said Councilor Eben Rose, “We have to do more than we’re doing now. I think this is a very modest request of our corporate citizens. If we do not do these things and more, I think we manifestly under-appreciate the consequences.”

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