A Big Step for PVD: City Council Passes Major Climate Legislation

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On November 2nd, the Providence City Council passed its first major climate legislation, voting unanimously and enthusiastically in support of a new Building Energy Reporting Ordinance (BERO). The policy is designed to help large building owners better manage their energy use, reduce energy costs, and reduce climate pollution from buildings. Energy used in buildings predominantly comes from the burning of fossil fuels like natural gas and fuel oil. The pollution from these fuels accounts for 70 percent of Providence’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“I am so grateful to my Council colleagues for unanimously passing BERO,” said Councilwoman Sue AnderBois of Ward Three. “We can’t manage what we don’t measure–and this sets us on a path to managing the carbon emissions from our biggest source of climate pollution–the built environment.”

The policy requires large building owners to track and report their energy use to the City. The City then reviews this information for accuracy and discloses it to the public. The ordinance will be applied to buildings over 20,000 gross square feet. For context, the Armory is 104,902 square feet, the WaterFire Arts Center is 37,126, and Urban Greens Co-op Market is 8,335 (the apartment building behind it is about 23,000 square feet). All these numbers are according to the tax assessors database, which is the same database the City will be using for the ordinance. The policy does not apply to any residential buildings with fewer than four units.

“This energy benchmarking ordinance is long overdue!” said Councilwoman Helen Anthony, Ward Two. “We introduced the ordinance on January 21, 2021 and we are finally passing it, almost three years later. Few things are as important as climate change and sustainability. I look forward to working with my Council colleagues, the Sustainability Commission, the Mayor and our community partners to pass more legislation that helps our City achieve its climate goals.”

Already implemented in dozens of cities and states across the country, this policy has proven to be effective at improving the energy efficiency of buildings nationwide. It creates transparency in the marketplace and begins to hold building owners accountable for their energy use and associated climate pollution. Providence is the first city in the state to pass such a policy, and its implementation will result in a cleaner, greener city for us all.

The policy works by requiring building owners to start paying attention to their energy bills and the overall performance of their buildings. These large buildings often have many tenants that pay the bills individually so the building owners and managers never get the full picture of how the building is doing when it comes to energy use. Without that information, it is hard to know when there are opportunities for improvements and how they can take advantage of the state’s great energy programs and incentives.

The program will also help the utilities, who run the energy efficiency programs, to know where they can most effectively invest rate-payer dollars to make our buildings more efficient. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, Rhode Island has some of the best energy efficiency programs in the country (ranked number seven in 2022) and our utilities are required to invest in energy efficiency before buying more electricity or natural gas to meet demand. With this policy, they will be able to look at the City’s database and find the greatest opportunities for energy efficiency improvements.

The City of Providence’s Office of Sustainability has been working on this policy since 2016. Initially, there was pushback from some of the large property owners in the city over concerns that the requirement would be onerous. But after piloting the program through a voluntary reporting program called RePowerPVD, many of them have come to support the new program.

The Steelyard with solar panels    photo by Newport Renewables

 

The Steel Yard was one of RePowerPVD’s early participants. By tracking their energy use, they have been able to better understand issues related to occupancy comfort and make energy improvements to their buildings.

“We are much more aware of our choices, so we will continue to improve our energy consumption at every chance,” says Howie Sneider, Executive Director. “We also chose not to have a gas line run to our main studio building. We are all electric and 100% renewable powered with a combination of rooftop solar and virtual net metered hydroelectric power from Pawtucket.”

Sneider was honest that not all the improvements have saved them money, but they have seen financial savings from the renewables, and they have been able to make significant improvements to occupancy comfort, which has been a challenge in their historic building.

The program will be phased in over the next four years. Starting in 2024, all municipal buildings, including schools, will have to report their building energy data. In 2025, buildings over 50,000 square feet will be covered by the policy, and in 2026, buildings over 20,000 square feet will be required to report. Once the ordinance is fully implemented, it will provide invaluable data to help the City manage its buildings in alignment with city and state climate goals. The results of this legislation should result in significantly less pollution in Providence.

Leah Bamberger served as the City’s Director of Sustainability from 2015 to 2021. She now is the Executive Director of Northeastern University’s Climate Justice and Sustainability Hub.