Tuning Up Seattle's Buildings

On March 10 Seattle took a key step on its path to be carbon neutral by 2050, when Mayor Ed Murray signed three energy efficiency ordinances that will reduce carbon pollution in the building sector.  

Although Seattle gets nearly carbon-neutral electricity from municipally-run Seattle City Light, roughly a third of the city’s carbon footprint comes from the built environment—primarily due to fossil gas use for heating and hot water. As Mayor Murray noted, “Buildings are the second largest source of climate pollution in Seattle and reducing their emissions is critical to meeting our city’s ambitious climate goals.”

The trio of laws does will accomplish the following:

  • Amend Seattle’s existing building energy benchmarking law to include public transparency of building energy performance. While owners of large commercial buildings in Seattle already report their annual energy consumption to the City, this updated ordinance will make that information public. 
  • Require that commercial buildings with floor area of 50,000 square feet and higher conduct “tune-ups” every five years to make building operations more efficient, at low or no cost.
  • Lead by example, conducting tune-ups on existing City buildings a year in advance of the commercial tune-up deadline. 

Of the 15 cities in the U.S. that have building energy benchmarking laws, Seattle and Austin, TX were the only ones without transparency requirements. This transparency ordinance puts Seattle back on pace with its peers in building energy efficiency.

New York City has a similar tune-up requirement, and a recent U.S. Department of Energy analysis found that New York City’s program led to almost 6 percent energy use reduction, almost 10 percent carbon emissions reduction, and the creation of over 7,000 jobs, all in the first three years of implementation.

Energy efficiency is the lowest-cost energy resource for the Northwest, the most effective way to ensure continued low-cost electric supply for all customers, and a crucial building block to achieve our collective carbon reduction goals.

Seattle’s new law will make building performance more visible in the real estate market; empower customers to understand how buildings are performing; reward building owners and managers for high energy performance; and develop a more robust market for building energy efficiency.

Elizabeth Willmott's picture

former New Energy Cities Program Manager

, Climate Solutions

Elizabeth served Climate Solutions as program manager for the New Energy Cities program, working with cities to help them meet their carbon reduction goals through innovative programs and policies. She most recently authored The Urban Clean Energy Revolution, a detailed compendium of urban climate solutions worldwide (also published in segments as the Low-Carbon Cities blog series), and Breaking Down Barriers to Deep Energy Efficiency in King County, a briefing paper on how to overcome obstacles to deep home energy efficiency. She also co-authored Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up, a July 2012 report on small and medium-sized cities around the U.S. that are demonstrating leadership in local clean energy innovation.

Elizabeth knows and loves local government. As lead author of the World Bank’s 2011 climate change adaptation guide for cities in developing countries, co-author of King County’s 2007 adaptation guidebook with ICLEI and the University of Washington, climate change aide to former King County Executive Ron Sims, and project manager of the first King County Climate Plan in 2007, Elizabeth brings a deep and wide background in community climate planning to the New Energy Cities team.

The program’s focus on "carbon math" also bears Elizabeth’s signature. She first found religion in Excel spreadsheets as the Recovery Act performance and accountability lead for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, overseeing the results of $13.6 billion in grants to cities and communities around the U.S.  Today her data-driven approach is most obvious in New Energy Cities’ energy maps and carbon wedge graphics.

Outside of work Elizabeth leaves ample time for gardening, biking, and movie-watching with her husband Andy. She holds a double degree in biology and Chinese language from Williams College and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School.