Salt Lake City air pollution effort focused on big buildings off to a slow start

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Downtown Salt Lake City skyline, looking north from the intersection of State Street and 1000 South, as seen in early December 2017. The city has new rules requiring that owners of commercial buildings report their energy usage, as a step toward lowering air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions from so-called areas source, such as homes and businesses.

Salt Lake City has put new rules in place requiring owners of large commercial buildings to report their energy use.

Passed with little fanfare in 2017, the new reporting requirements are being phased in as part of a larger city effort to lower emissions from buildings, which officials say account for nearly 40% of the air pollution hanging over the Salt Lake Valley during its winter inversions.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski on Thursday praised building managers with Unico Properties, City Creek Reserve and Intermountain Healthcare for recent steps in improving energy efficiency, saying the companies were furthering the city’s goals for sustainability.

“By considering your building’s environmental footprint, each of you are doing your part to help address our region’s air quality problem, and the threat of climate change,” Biskupski told them.

But there are signs that compliance with the city’s new Energy Benchmarking and Transparency Ordinance is off to a slow start.

The new rules, passed on a 4-to-1 vote by the City Council, set a May 2019 reporting deadline for commercial buildings more than 50,000 square feet — although apartment complexes, places of worship, oil and gas and farm-related facilities and certain other building types are exempt.

More than three months past that deadline, owners of fewer than half of the roughly 480 eligible buildings have turned in their energy consumption data and benchmarks, which are supposed to cover both annual electricity and natural gas usage.

Participating owners get an official energy-efficiency score for each commercial building — numbers that the city is keeping private for now. Those Energy Star ratings then let owners monitor their energy usage, compare it with similar structures in similar industries — and learn about potential cost savings from voluntarily upgrades to heating, cooling and other systems.

Only about 217 commercial building owners have reported so far, according to city tallies. Combined, they earned an average Energy Star rating of 63 on a scale of 0 to 100.

And while some day, owners failing to report their energy usage may be subject to penalties of up to $1,000 per year, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Sustainability noted that City Hall has not levied any fines yet, though he said notices of non-compliance have been mailed out.

“A big part of this exercise is making building owners aware that they can track their energy consumption and understand how they compare to other buildings,” said Peter Nelson, a sustainability coordinator with the city who oversees the program, known as Elevate Buildings.

“It’s a matter of communication and making sure the information gets to the right people,” said Nelson, who added the city is assuming it will take “one to two years to really get everyone on the same page and understanding how compliance works.”

City-run buildings were obliged to report their energy usage last year under the new rules. Next May, mandatory reporting will expand to all commercial buildings over 25,000 square feet, for a total of about 1,000 buildings in the city.

The Energy Benchmarking and Transparency Ordinance took more than 18 months to draft, based on wide input from businesses, utilities, the commercial real estate industry, other cities and members of the public. Several early proposals mandating actions by building owners beyond reporting were eventually dropped.

When the ordinance passed, city officials projected the benchmarking system could save owners up to $15.8 million annually in energy costs while removing more than 29 tons of pollutants each year from Salt Lake City’s air shed.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Market Transformation, a nonprofit focused on energy efficiency in buildings, Salt Lake City was the 25th major U.S. city to adopt such benchmark reporting.

Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers, the ordinance’s lone opposing vote, at the time called it “the wrong approach,” saying he’d “much rather see us work our way up to this.”

So-called area sources — homes, small businesses and commercial buildings — are projected to outstrip automobiles and other modes of transportation as the major source of air pollution in coming years along the Wasatch Front, due in part to the advent of cleaner vehicle fuel standards.

Elected leaders in Salt Lake City have committed to shifting Utah’s capital to consumption of clean electricity — generated entirely without fossil fuels — by 2032 and an 80% reduction from its 2009 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. They view improved energy efficiency as a key piece of that plan.

It is not uncommon, Nelson said, that simple and relatively inexpensive changes can bring marked increases in energy efficiency. The Department of Sustainability is also offering a resource center, aimed at helping connect building owners with tools and financial incentives for equipment improvements.

Owners can report their energy usage numbers to the city via a free online Energy Star portal, which has been automated with financial help from local utility companies Rocky Mountain Power and Dominion Energy. Both utilities are also offering building owners help with energy-savings audits.

Buildings that earn Energy Star scores above 75 are also eligible for recognition under the city’s Skyline Challenge Awards program. Forty-two of the buildings reporting so far received scores of 75 or above, meaning they meet stringent standards for energy performance set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration.

Three of them have been singled out by the city this year for exemplary work, based on nominations from the community.

Unico Properties was recognized for work on the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at its Tower 250, located at 250 East 200 South. City Creek Reserve, a real estate development arm for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, drew kudos for optimizing energy efficiency in the HVAC system at Key Bank Tower, at 36 South State St.

The city’s Energy Project of the Year award went to Intermountain Healthcare for several upgrades at Primary Children’s Hospital, including the installation of new air handling units and retrofitting an LED light system.