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Building Baselines: Carolyn Sarno Goldthwaite

Carolyn Sarno Goldthwaite, VP of Customer Engagement, ClearlyEnergy

Building Baselines has been an evolving idea at Calico Energy for many years. Inspired by the bookend minutes before and after calls with industry thought leaders and the post-session conversations at various energy conferences, the goal for this series has always been to capture the energy and multidimensionality of the insightful conversations we were having.  

At the core of Building Baselines is a desire to engage energy sector thought-leaders on the topic of whole building energy data, building decarbonization, and the growing impact of building-focused policies like benchmarking and performance standards across the country. As the years have unfolded so has the landscape of the industry. Policy moves both fast and slow and thus has an enormous impact on market transformation. It shapes our present and our future.

We are launching with ClearlyEnergy’s own Vice President of Customer Engagement, Carolyn Sarno Goldthwaite. Carolyn’s bio runs the gamut of the energy industry. As a certified building operator and former facilities manager for Newton, Mass., she managed operations, maintenance, and renovations for 85 buildings. From there, she joined Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) as their Senior Director of Advanced Efficiency Solutions, where she provided strategic direction and management.

ClearlyEnergy facilitates residential and commercial building energy programs across the country. They collaborate with real-estate community partners to simplify and add transparency to residential and commercial energy disclosure programs. Additionally, ClearlyEnergy manages benchmarking and commercial building energy performance standards. As Vice President of Customer Engagement, Carolyn leads ClearlyEnergy’s commercialization efforts. She collaborates with stakeholders to develop cost-effective and cutting-edge solutions to tackle climate change.

Our time with Carolyn was not enough! We could listen to her deep dive into the state of building benchmarking today, policy realities, and thoughts on the market landscape. We enjoyed this conversation so much; we hope you do too.  

What does building benchmarking mean to you and what stage is it currently in?

Building benchmarking will be highly impactful in the coming years and decades. Right now, I’d liken it to a teenager. It’s a teenager who doesn’t know quite what it wants to be yet, but thinks it knows already.

In the future, it’ll grow into something streamlined – easy to use and understand. To grow it, though, there must be greater alignment throughout its processes. For example, how do you integrate building updates with clean energy programs while also incorporating utility data? These are the things we must continue to think about to help progress and grow.

What does a successful deployment of a benchmarking ordinance look like? Who is involved? What must happen? What are the results? What are the challenges / roadblocks?

In the past couple of years, as communities were adopting these benchmarking policies, many folks were bringing the commercial building owners and utility owners to the table. Now, I think the circle is widening in the best possible direction by making sure we include community-based organizations and those that are – quite frankly – most affected by the emissions of these buildings. Ultimately, by including all stakeholders, we can build more resilient communities.

Of course, there are challenges to the deployment of a benchmarking ordinance. One being the simple, yet crucial element of education. How do you educate building owners on the importance of benchmarking when English isn’t the first language for many smaller-scale building owners? Data and information must exist in multiple languages to educate the people that need it. The other hurdle is the oftentimes unwieldiness of portfolio managers. Many of these programs are not intuitive and easy to use. As a result, it becomes difficult to properly train the people that need to be trained.

However, if done successfully, benchmarking can create positive economic and environmental outcomes. Studies have shown that energy efficient buildings rent out to consumers for $3 more per square foot. And, of course, on the environmental side, the cleaner and more efficient a building’s operations are, the less emissions are produced, and the actual occupants of the building reap the benefits of a cleaner space. Furthermore, on a macro scale, these healthy buildings ultimately contribute to healthier communities and neighborhoods.

Do any jurisdictions come to mind as being “best in class”?

There isn’t necessarily a “best in class” jurisdiction, but some areas have greater history and experiences in this space. For example, Washington, DC. was the very first jurisdiction to pass a building performance standard policy. We recognize not everybody is going to be like DC, but we want to make sure that we’re building a tool that can meet the needs of our stakeholders.

Boston is also one of those earlier cities that adopted a benchmarking policy, and I remember when they brought folks to the table. It was all about the commercial building owners, and they were very concerned with the impact on their buildings. 

And now, Boston has revised their building performance standard and their policy to Building Emissions and Reduction and Disclosure (BERDO), essentially flipping their strategy around. Boston developed a community group to focus on equity. They started involving community-based organizations to bring to the table to revise the ordinance.

It’s important to understand that benchmarking standards will vary from community to community, state to state, and region to region. You want continuity between benchmarking policies across the country, while also understanding that what works for a respective community is going to have considerable variance.

We are, however, through funding from the Department of Energy working on developing regional cohorts to help align benchmarking and BPS policies. The desired outcome of this project is to essentially lessen the confusion for building owners through the creation of greater resources and standardization support – especially for smaller jurisdictions.

Ultimately, it’s not a bad thing if no two jurisdictions are the same, as long as they have the tools they need and can support building owners. And when it comes to supporting our partners, our software is highly customizable. It can adapt to the specific needs of our partners, which ultimately helps policy scaling and growth even in the absence of uniformity across the country.

How do these strategies and policies integrate with utilities?

Utilities get to claim savings for their support of energy code adoption. Several years ago, when I was at NEEP, we outlined a framework so utilities could claim attribution to help with energy code compliance issues. As part of our DOE funded project we (ClearlyEnergy) are working to develop a framework for utility attribution for benchmarking and BPS.

Now, as energy becomes more efficient, the opportunity for utilities to collect on savings goes down. They need another vehicle for savings, which is where compliance comes into play. This is what I have been working on for some time now.

And the question I ask is “why can’t we use the same structure for utilities to support building performance standards?” The answer is that many jurisdictions are limited in their resources – staffing wise, as well as software and tools. As a result, we are working with Slipstream as part of the DOE  grant we were awarded to further build out frameworks for utility attribution for benchmarking and BPS. Ultimately, the integration of utilities into the benchmarking space will be crucial due to the intrinsic interdependence of the two spaces.

As we wrap up this insightful conversation with Carolyn, it’s clear that building benchmarking as a field is in its formative stage. What does this mean for those of us invested in its future? The current focus lies in aligning processes and engaging stakeholders for future growth and impact.

It is evident that successful benchmarking and BPS ordinances of today (and in the future) involve a diverse array of stakeholders, including building owners, utilities, community-based organizations, and affected individuals. We are heartened to hear Carolyn discuss the value of collaboration and inclusivity as key for realizing the economic, environmental, and social benefits of future building benchmarking initiatives.

ClearlyEnergy and NEEP BEPs Report October 2023

ClearlyEnergy & NEEP: BEPS Impact Report

A new report from ClearlyEnergy and the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) provides key performance metrics for eight of the fourteen BPS policies currently adopted across the U.S.


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