The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expanded from ENERGY STAR© products to ENERGY STAR buildings in the mid-1990s. Following a pilot program that showcased buildings implementing measures to reduce energy use, EPA began developing an approach designed to objectively benchmark the performance of buildings against each other.

By 1999 this included the ENERGY STAR energy performance scale, which assigns a building a score from 1 to 100 based on its performance compared to other similar buildings. Buildings in the top 25 percent are eligible to receive the recognition of an ENERGY STAR label.

A key element of the EPA energy performance scale is the data used for benchmarking, which relies heavily on the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). This survey collects energy use and related information for commercial buildings on a nationwide basis. After the CBECS data is collected, it undergoes a significant amount of processing – which brings us to the heart of the issue. The survey began in 1979 and is conducted every four years. Since this is 2011, one would expect that a 2007 CBECS report would be the current standard.

However, the 2003 CBECS report is the most recently issued report. Earlier this year the U.S. Energy Information Agency announced: "EIA regrets to report that the 2007 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) has not yielded valid statistical estimates of building counts, energy characteristics, consumption, and expenditures. Because the data do not meet EIA standards for quality, credible energy information, neither data tables nor a public use file will be released."

As a near-term solution, one could hope that the 2011 CBECS report will be issued in the foreseeable future. However, EIA also announced that budget cuts for fiscal year 2011 required significant cuts in EIA’s activities, including a decision to: "Suspend work on EIA’s 2011 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), the Nation’s only source of statistical data for energy consumption and related characteristics of commercial buildings."

Some have raised questions about the validity of benchmarking buildings against data that is eight years old, given the expectation that significant progress has been made in implementing energy efficiency measures since then. However, EPA’s view is that "EPA has found that the key drivers of energy use in commercial buildings have remained largely consistent over the past 10 years," and "The ENERGY STAR scales remain the best representation of commercial building energy performance in the market."

This has implications not only for ENERGY STAR itself, but also for other programs and benchmarks that rely on the ENERGY STAR scale. Perhaps the government can be persuaded to provide adequate funding to permit completion of the 2011 CBECS report. In the meantime, it would not be surprising to see private initiatives attempting to fill a perceived void.