UCLA’s Free Energy Atlas Uncovers L.A. buildings’ Role in Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By combining never-before released data from energy utilities with public data, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers created database with an unprecedented look at the energy-use landscape

UCLA researchers recently their new L.A. Energy Atlas, a free database that combines never-before-released data from energy utilities with public records to reveal previously undetectable patterns about how people, buildings and cities use energy.

Researchers from the California Center for Sustainable Communities (CCSC) at UCLA assembled information in a searchable database with where users can sort and parse it by household income; building age, size or use; city or neighborhood; energy use per square foot; energy use per capita; and other metrics.

“Buildings emit almost 40 percent of a city’s greenhouse gases, but until now we didn’t have much detail,” said UCLA professor Stephanie Pincetl, head of the Energy Atlas project. “It was the equivalent of knowing that cars produced greenhouses gases, but not knowing the emissions difference between a diesel truck and a hybrid car.”

The CCSC researchers are beginning to analyze data and have designed the atlas for collaboration with local governments, state policy makers, non-profits, researchers and other stakeholders to make data-driven energy-saving policies that protect the environment. The atlas reveals for the first time that the most inefficient buildings in the county aren’t the newest or oldest, but structures from the 1970s. Users of the atlas will find that residents of Malibu use the most energy per capita and Avalon’s denizens use the least; and while homes in many low-income neighborhoods are less efficient per square foot than homes in wealthy neighborhoods, well-off neighborhoods use more energy per person. For example, the average person consumes 10 times as much electricity in Malibu as in Bell, and countywide, wealthy areas consume more than three times as much energy as poor areas.

“Before now, only utility companies had the energy-usage data – not rate payers, not renewable-energy advocates, not city governments – and even the utilities did not connect it to the full range of variables in the atlas,” said Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities and a professor-in-residence at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “This is a breakthrough that makes it possible to understand the energy-use landscape in a way that still protects privacy.”

The Energy Atlas illuminates the many differences in how people, buildings, and neighborhoods use energy, showing that a one-size-fits-all policy on energy reduction would not be equitable or cost effective, the researchers said. Local governments’ enforcement power over building codes and permits means they shoulder much of the responsibility of California’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals. The atlas gives local governments reliable data to establish baselines and evaluate the effectiveness of programs, said Howard Choy, the general manager of the Los Angeles County Office of Sustainability, which provided $500,000 to fund the atlas and supported obtaining data for future energy policies.

“The L.A. Energy Atlas is a resource with the capability to transform local government energy planning efforts,” Choy said. “Until now, this level of information has been difficult to access, and impossible to connect with actual land use conditions. LA County will use the information from the Energy Atlas to inform energy programs and shape future policies.”

The Energy Atlas includes assessor records, census data, and electricity and natural gas usage from 2006-2010 for all of Los Angeles County, with the exception of five cities — Azusa, Cerritos, the City of Industry, Pasadena and Vernon — where the researchers were unable to obtain data from the smaller utilities serving these areas. UCLA researchers have long argued that transparency around utility information is critical for making smart decisions and investments on energy policy, and all the more so because many energy-saving incentive programs are publically funded.

“The database links energy usage to building characteristics and really allows the user to slice-and-dice the data,” said Zoe Elizabeth, project director of the atlas and associate director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities. “Energy data has not historically been released at this level of detail, so for UCLA to gain access and make it transparent to everyone is a huge shift.”

More about the California Center for Sustainable Communities:  The mission of the California Center for Sustainable Communities is to create actionable science that improves the sustainability of urban systems.  It is to provide the intellectual and conceptual framework for new synthesis and thinking in sustainability research.

For cities to remain habitable, profound changes need to occur both in cities themselves and in the ways they impact the surrounding landscapes and hinterlands. Sustainability is an approach that directly addresses this difficult challenge and acknowledges that it can’t be done if the needs of the present are met by compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Achieving progress toward sustainability requires maintaining and improving both human and ecosystem well-being. Our challenge is to make cities centers of sustainability in the ways they develop and redevelop beyond the next century.

The center’s main research themes are:

  • Urban Metabolism methods and quantification of L.A County.
  • Integrated social-biophysical research on human environmental interactions and their impacts and feedback loops.
  • Social justice and urban environmental sustainability through revitalizing and renaturalizing the urban environment.
  • Research and analysis of systems of governance and government for democratic accountability and greater sustainability.
  • Energy Systems and California Communities
  • Analysis of L.A. County’s water governance system, with a focus on management and distribution.