Energy Star and LEED: Which is Right for You?

March 22, 2005
A growing number of people have heard of the Energy Star and LEED (Leadership in Energy Environmental Design) programs. Energy Star and LEED are helping

A growing number of people have heard of the Energy Star and LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) programs. Energy Star and LEED are helping to change the way we design, build, and operate better buildings. With energy costs likely to continue rising in the future, these programs will be talked about even more often.

However, do you know what these programs are all about? Where they came from, who they’re targeting, how they’re similar, and how they’re different?

Here’s a brief guide that will make you much more conversant about these programs, although I can’t guarantee that this will necessarily make you a big hit at cocktail parties.

Energy Star

Energy Star is a government program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Its goal is to protect the environment by identifying and promoting the use of energy efficient products and services.

At its outset, Energy Star rated and labeled computers for their energy usage. Now the program labels more than 35 product categories, including residential and light commercial HVAC equipment, as well as new homes and commercial buildings. For labeling commercial buildings, Energy Star evaluates conformance to energy efficiency and indoor environmental standards, primarily ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) and IES standards. It uses a statistical analysis data set (the DOE’s Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey) to compare energy intensity of similar buildings across the country. To date, roughly 1,400 commercial building nationwide, mainly office buildings and schools, have earned an Energy Star label (see Figure 1).

Energy Star also provides services that can be very useful to commercial contractors, such as new building design guidance, a building upgrade manual, and an energy performance target finder.

Energy Star’s new building design guidance is a web-based initiative. It recommends actions at each stage of the design process, focusing on energy efficiency and integrated design. It begins with pre-design, and ends with the building earning the Energy Star label.

The Energy Performance Target Finder is another valuable web-based tool. It allows the user to set an energy target, compare design energy and cost to that target throughout the design process, and measure the effectiveness of various energy design strategies.

For existing buildings, the web-based Portfolio Manager can be used to submit an application for an Energy Star label. This tool allows contractors to benchmark a building’s energy performance (utility usage). Then, working with the program’s building upgrade manual, helps achieve energy savings that will qualify the building for the label.

There’s no single path to an Energy Star label; it can be achieved through a combination of energy efficient equipment and sound operating practices.

Contractors who join Energy Star as product and service providers, receive a highlight on the Air Conditioning Contractors Association of America’s (ACCA’s) contractor locator. Building owners benefit in intangible ways, such as having a building that’s nationally recognized for its energy efficiency, as well as the more popular tangible ways: lower cost of ownership and increased building valuation.

Contractors can also use Portfolio Manager to assist customers in ranking the energy efficiency of their facilities and prioritizing upgrades, as well as tracking and measuring energy efficiency progress of facility improvements over time.

Best of all, Energy Star represents your tax dollars at work in a way that you can really use. As a government program, all of the tools are “free” and available at


LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a product of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Although that may sound like a government agency, it’s actually a non-profit organization with a voluntary, diverse membership. Anyone can become a member. LEED also has a diverse market, as shown in Figures 2 and 3.

LEED was created as a way to define high performance green buildings, set quantifiable targets and goals, recognize leaders, promote improvement over time, stimulate green competition, and raise consumer awareness.

LEED’s Green Building Rating System is a points-based, national standard for developing high performance commercial buildings. Unlike Energy Star, which focuses on energy usage, LEED evaluates building performance in these green design categories:

  • sustainable sites
  • water efficiency
  • energy and atmosphere
  • materials and resources
  • indoor environmental quality
  • innovation and design process, and use of a LEED-accredited designer.

Depending on its performance in these categories, a building can be LEED certified in four levels of achievement: certified, silver, gold, and platinum.

Like Energy Star, LEED has benefits for the building owner. These include recognition of quality buildings and environmental stewardship, and third-party validation of achievement. LEED-certified buildings receive marketing exposure through the USGBC Website, case studies, media announcements, and a LEED certification plaque. They also qualify for a growing array of state and government incentives.

It’s important to know that LEED is not a fad. About 6% of new building square footage is registering for LEED certification, and USGBC’s goal is to increase that to 20%. Roughly 60% of requests for proposals on the East and West Coasts are requesting LEED certification. In addition, many state entities and corporations with a long-term stake in their buildings are requiring LEED certification.

Contractors may want to have an individual within their companies take a test to gain the “LEED Accredited Professional” designation. Having a LEED Accredited Professional is a way of identifying your organization’s commitment to energy and environmental efficiency and participating in this growing movement.

For more information, visit

Which is Right for You?

So which program should your company be using and promoting? Both, of course.

They’re not competing programs, they’re complementary. You can use Energy Star products in LEED buildings, and use Energy Star’s tools, such as Portfolio Manager, to measure a LEED-certified building’s energy performance.

Be aware the LEED compliance is no guarantee of an energy efficient building, and using Energy Star rated products in a building is no guarantee of an integrated or green building.

The great thing about both programs is that they get owners thinking about a whole building approach, and life-cycle costs, and get them away from a tunnel-vision focus on first cost decision-making. Both programs give you the tools, the mindset, and the resources for the whole-building approach to be your standard approach to building design, construction, and operation.

Energy Star and LEED are both great programs, and participation in both will be increasingly valuable to contractors in the commercial market. Participation in these programs will help you if your business’ philosophy, at its core, includes energy and environmental efficiency. So, before you dive in, examine your business’ philosophy. Most people who truly believe in energy and environmental efficiency believe in it passionately, and it’s a way of life. If you believe in what you’re doing, and enjoy doing it, you’ll be a lot more successful at it. Your customers deserve nothing less.

Peter C. D’Antonio, P.E., CEM, LEED AP, is founder and president of PCD Engineering Services, Inc., Longmont, CO. PCD Engineering Services provides sustainable mechanical/electrical design, energy management, and integrated building system solutions. He can be reached at 303/678-1108, or [email protected]