Photo by Dept of Energy Solar Decathlon on Flickr.

Five years ago, the DC Council created the DC Sustainable Energy Utility to help the city’s growing population use less energy. While it hasn’t been perfect, DC SEU can help achieve Mayor Gray’s goal of cutting the District’s energy use in half by 2032.

Created by the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 and housed within the District Department of the Environment, DC SEU is dedicated to reducing the District’s energy footprint. Residents and business owners directly support DC SEU through a surcharge on their electricity and natural gas bills.

In return. DC SEU will give residents reduced-price compact fluorescent light bulbs, rebates for energy-efficient appliances, or even install better insulation and duct sealing in homes. For commercial and industrial properties, which are the District’s largest energy users, DC SEU provides incentives and technical assistance for large-scale commercial properties and offers rebates for energy-efficient commercial equipment and lighting.

While states like Vermont, Ohio, and Delaware have sustainable energy utilities, DC SEU is the only one that measures success in terms of both energy savings and economic development. In 2012, DC SEU served 18,795 households in 2012, 60% of which are low-income, and spent $5.2 million with locally-owned Certified Business Enterprises, or CBEs. DC SEU claims that its customers save almost $3 million annually in energy costs, while its efficiency measures produce lifetime economic benefits of almost $24 million.

However, not everyone is convinced of DC SEU’s effectiveness. Employees of the utility’s vaunted green jobs program, which was supposed to create 100 new jobs every year, say their work was unproductive and “meaningless.” Perhaps more can be done to strengthen the training and future job placement aspects of the jobs offered through DC SEU, but one lone program can’t be expected to squelch the District’s persistent plague of unemployment.

Meanwhile, critics argue that DC SEU has accomplished little other than self-promotion. There certainly seems to be room for better cooperation between DC SEU and pre-existing community organizations promoting solar power installation. But there’s always a learning curve when government takes over tasks previously in the purview of the private sector, no matter how poorly Pepco did at promoting efficiency, especially when Pepco owns the power lines and metering systems.

We’ll be able to get a better understanding of what DC SEU has accomplished with newly available data on how much electricity, water, and gas buildings in the District consume. DC has assessed the energy and water use and carbon emissions of every District-

owned building every year since 2009, but this is the first year that private owners of commercial buildings larger than 100,000 square feet are required to report their energy and water use to DDOE in compliance with new benchmarking regulation. Next year, the requirement will extend to all commercial and multifamily residential buildings larger than 50,000 square feet.

For the past two years, the DC SEU has provided a Benchmarking Help Center assist owners of large buildings assess and report energy and water use. They have fielded more questions about medical offices and small retail outlets in multifamily apartment buildings and condominiums than expected.

“We walk by these buildings every day, but we don’t think about how they operate, how much energy or water they use or what’s inside,” says Help Center spokesperson John Andreoni. “Through the release of benchmarked and reported data, we’ll gain access to this information.”

This wealth of public data will increase transparency in the market and provide a more complete picture of DC buildings’ energy, water, and carbon footprints than has ever been produced. As more efficiency measures are implemented, we’ll be able to see how effective DC SEU actually is.

In most industries, it costs less per unit to produce greater quantities of a product. But with energy, the reverse is true. That’s why investing in conservation at the consumer level is the most prudent way for governments to reduce energy use and save users money. Not only is efficiency more effective for ratepayers and taxpayers than building new power plants, even ones using renewable sources, it’s also better for the environment.

Armed with more public data, DC SEU will have more information at hand to shrink the District’s resource consumption and encourage building owners and managers to embrace energy efficiency. If it achieves measurable success, it will not only trim the city’s environmental footprint, but keep costs low for all District ratepayers.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.