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  • Mac Robinet, Maureen Stillman

Net Zero Emissions: Are we there yet? How will we know when we’ve arrived?

The familiar refrain of a child traveler, “Are we there yet?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves as we travel the road toward net zero emissions. To avoid critical climate tipping points, those who work actively to prevent climate change purse the goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.  

But how will we know if we are on the right road? How will we know if we are getting there? We must have a realistic road map, and we must have a way to accurately measure progress.  


We create greenhouse gas emissions primarily from our use of electricity and natural gas for heating and cooling our buildings. We measure the usage of electricity in kilowatt-hours (kWh) and natural gas in British thermal units (BTU). To describe total energy use, both natural gas and electricity are given in BTU. (One kWh is equal to about 3,000 BTU.)  

However, the metered total doesn’t tell us everything. For example, what if a new high- efficiency appliance is using more energy per month than the old one? Is the appliance defective or was there a significant change in the weather during the test period? To accurately measure and track energy use, we must have a means of normalizing the data (make corrections for weather, etc.). This is a major part of what Energy Star Portfolio Manager was designed to do.  


The Environmental Protection Agency created Energy Star in 1992 to provide resources and tools for businesses and households to manage and improve their energy use. Its Portfolio Manager ( was launched in 2000. It’s a free online tool that measures and tracks energy and water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of buildings. It can be used for a portfolio of properties or for a single building. By normalizing our energy usage input, Portfolio Manager can provide an ongoing measure of energy usage per square foot for all our buildings. This is called an Energy Use Intensity (EUI) score.  


In addition to measuring, normalizing, and tracking energy data, Portfolio Manager has a sophisticated benchmarking component. Energy Benchmarking determines whether a building is using more or less energy than peer facilities that have similar characteristics, occupancies, and size. This can provide valuable insight into energy usage. 


Maybe most important is that the future lies with measuring our impact on the planet. As it has been said, “If you want to lose weight you had better have a scale!” A sign that things are getting serious is the Village of Oak Park’s passing an ordinance this year requiring all buildings over 10,000 square feet (Chicago’s minimum is 50,000 square feet) to be recorded on Energy Star Portfolio Manager so the village can monitor buildings’ use of electricity, gas, and water. All United Methodist churches are larger than 10,000 square feet and are in the process on initiating Energy Star Portfolio Manager. 

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