Colorado wants to make its big buildings more efficient — but first it needs their energy data

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Morning sun pierces the haze around the Denver skyline, seen from the west, Aug. 12, 2022.

Colorado officials want to bring the state's biggest buildings in line with its climate goals, but it needs to know how much energy they're using to get started.

Owners and managers of most buildings over 50,000 square feet have until Dec. 1 to report their energy usage to the state. The "benchmarking" rule is an initial step as Colorado acts on a 2021 climate law, which requires the operators of large buildings to cut their climate-warming emissions 7 percent by 2026 and 20 percent by 2030.

The new program is an early test as Gov. Jared Polis’ administration attempts to meet Colorado's ambitious climate goals. After transportation and electricity generation, buildings account for the third-largest share of Colorado's contribution to global warming, representing 20 percent of emissions in 2019, according to state estimates.

It's also one area where the administration expects climate policy could reduce costs for building operators. Polis’ greenhouse gas roadmap — a wishlist of his administration's climate policies — identifies building efficiency as a "no-regrets action" because it both saves money on utility bills and avoids carbon dioxide emissions. 

But building owners aren't exactly leaping into compliance.

The Colorado Energy Office worked with county assessors to identify about 8,300 large buildings covered by the new law. With less than two weeks until the deadline, about 35 percent have either submitted energy usage reports or are working with state officials to meet the deadline, said Keith Hay, a senior policy director at the Colorado Energy Office. 

"I would really encourage anyone listening who thinks they have a covered building, please get in touch," Hay said. "We have a lot of resources to help."

Building owners and managers won’t face any fees or fines if they miss the deadline. Hay said the law authorizes the state to assess civil penalties for failing to report energy usage starting in 2024, but not before then. 

Hay doesn't attribute the low reporting rate to the current lack of enforceable punishments — or any other single factor. Instead, he said building owners and managers need time to learn about the program and the "benefits of better understanding their energy use." In many cases, he said building operators don’t even know they use more energy than comparable buildings nearby.

Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins have operated similar building benchmarking programs for years. A state map shows compliance is far higher in those cities, which Hay said helps prove the main barrier is a lack of knowledge about the new reporting requirements. 

That explanation appears to fit with insights from the industry itself. Kathie Barstnar, the executive director of NAIOP Colorado, a trade association representing the state's building owners and managers, said she contacted operators of about a half dozen properties who have not submitted reports. All either weren't aware of the new program or were in the process of submitting their energy usage data to the state, Barstnar said. 

Other property managers told CPR News they were trying to comply with the new reporting requirement. Dana Schield, a spokesperson for the Colorado Springs Airport, said it had submitted its energy data, but the map hasn't been updated with the information. Nick Palmiotti, the director of sales and marketing for the Pueblo Convention Center, said the property submitted the data but is waiting for the Colorado Energy Office to confirm it received it. 

"It's our assumption that we've completed everything that's been asked of us," Palmiotti said. 

Collecting the data is the first step in requiring major renovations to the state's largest buildings.

Beyond setting up the new benchmarking program, the 2021 legislation called for new building performance standards to reduce the climate impact of the state's largest buildings. 

The Colorado Energy Office convened a task force to recommend those rules to the state's Air Quality Control Commission. The panel of building operators, architects, utility employers and environmental advocates approved their final suggestions in October.

Those recommendations advise giving building operators a menu of options to achieve compliance. One of two main pathways would require buildings to cut their energy intensity, a measurement based on energy usage per square foot. The other would be to force buildings to meet 80 percent of their space and water heating demand with all-electric appliances, which can be powered by renewable energy.

If a building operator decides both pathways are unfeasible, the task force recommends other ways to demonstrate compliance, like buying renewable energy credits or participating in utility demand-management programs. The task force also recommended flexibility with the emissions deadlines. A building operator struggling with finances, labor constraints or supply-chain issues should be able to apply for an "adjusted timeline" under the standards, according to the recommendations. 

The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission must finalize the new regulations by June 1, 2023.