Can the internet help energy efficiency?

by ‐ Tags: benchmarking policy, tracking and benchmarking

In case you haven't heard, increasing energy efficiency is a pretty big deal these days. There is a general agreement that buildings could be saving kilowatt-hours and btu's, with their associated dollars and tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The State and Local Energy Efficiency Action Network (SEE Action) is laying important groundwork to help governments (states and cities) improve efficiency of buildings. As proponents of universal energy benchmarking and disclosure, we at WegoWise are particularly supportive of this report from last year.

Benchmarking energy use is a great start, and the clear first step to managing energy. But understanding how the building compares to its peers does not have any direct impact or savings. It is just information (albeit nudging information).

What is the next step?

According to the latest report by the existing commercial buildings group in the SEE Action network, the answer is energy audits and retro-commissioning. Taking cues from New York City, Austin and San Francisco, the report outlines a policy progression that begins with benchmarking disclosure, adds audits and retro-commissioning, and ultimately results in cost-effective energy savings.

Take a look at this diagram from the report, showing how layers of policy can help building owners understand their energy use (benchmarking), identify opportunities for savings (audits), and implement the low cost improvements for immediate savings (retro-commissioning).

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This framework is simple and sensible, and in my opinion it is a great innovation in policy-making. However, the role of modern technology and its ability to drastically reduce cost - is conspicuously absent. In fact, the general workflow of energy bill analysis to deep-dive audits to improvements is identical to the approach taken by energy service companies since the 1980's (and earlier!). And this during a period of radical transformation in almost every industry through technologies like the internet. 

Can technology help?

The core technologies used for energy management today are historical peers of typewriters (or word processors or early PC's) and digital calculators. Imagine sitting down at a machine, typing a message, printing it, and dropping it in a mailbox, then waiting for days until the recipient gets the message and responds. Sounds crazy in a world of email, right? What about calculating revenues, profit and losses on a calculator and writing it in a ledger? There may be a few people hanging on to the "old ways," but for the most part the financial industry has embraced the software and internet technology, and millions of hours have been saved as a result (not to mention the reduction in human error!).

Now think about a real estate company managing their multi-million dollar energy spend. The process starts with a person digging through a file cabinet or a computer folder to find a year's worth of monthly utility bills, then typing the data into a spreadsheet. For a large portfolio, this could take weeks. Eventually, the analyst can calculate energy intensity (energy used per square foot of floor space) and upload spreadsheets to a tool like Energy Star Portfolio Manager, then submit the forms to the city or state responsible for the disclosure law. The next step is a light audit, where a licensed energy engineer spends a day or two walking the facility, taking notes, snapping photos, and asking questions about the building operation. Then he takes his clipboard back to the office, delivering a report a few weeks later that details the current situation and identifies ways to save energy. If approved by management and/or required by law, one or more contractors will come to the facility to implement energy improvements. 

Not a bad approach, and certainly one that has saved millions of kilowatt-hours, therms, btus, dollars and tons of carbon. But this path to energy efficiency does not benefit from modern technology to the extent seen in other industries. As a result, there may be significant time savings and efficiency improvements being left on the table.

Energy Efficiency and the "Wonders of the Internet"

How can technology help deliver energy savings in buildings? In the building science circles I run in, "technology" conjures up images of high-resolution meters, ubiquitous sensors, and expensive processors and networked actuators. Or maybe you think of dimmable LED lights, futuristic insulation, ductless air conditioners, or maybe a Bloom box.

These are all well and good, but for the moment let's focus on a much simpler technology that has transformed countless industries and reshaped the way we live (except when we deliver energy services): the internet. By connecting computers together and establishing standards for data transfer, the world wide web has drastically reduced costs and laid the foundation for an information economy. With many notches on its belt, the internet is ready to change the status quo of the energy services industry. 

There are many ways the internet can help unlock energy efficiency, but we will focus on the three phases of the workflow proposed by the SEE Action network. At each step, low-cost internet technology can have a major positive impact.

1. Benchmarking. Understanding how much energy a building is using and how that compares to similar buildings is exclusively a data issue. This should be easy and painless, but ask anyone involved in the actual implementation and they will tell you it is not. Consider the low compliance rates in the Seattle and San Francisco programs. Would more people disclose energy use if it were easier? 

Another way the internet can help benchmarking is to provide what internet architects call context. For example, a disclosure law may require a building to calculate and share a 1-100 Energy Star score, providing a high-level comparison to other buildings of similar type and in a similar climate. But what if this building has a radio station broadcasting from the penthouse, or baseboard electric heaters? Trying to take this building to the average may not be feasible or practical, and it would certainly help to be able to explain the full context when potential tenants ask about it.

2. Audit. The largest and most immediate cost savings the internet can offer is in the area of energy audits. In several of the city and state laws, audits are mandatory, with the hope that the building owner will pursue some of the energy-saving recommendations discovered in the process. In practice, this leads to reports that may turn up very little in the way of energy savings, and could end up on a dusty bookshelf. (I know this from experience, having spent too much of my life on energy reports no one ever read.) At a price tag in the thousands of dollars, an energy audit would make a pretty expensive piece of clutter. 

A more efficient approach is to target audits to those buildings likely to benefit from them. With the "Wonders of the Internet," it is now possible to filter in two important ways before triggering an energy audit. The first is technical - a simple remote analysis can easily show which buildings are operating below average and therefore are likely to turn up cost-effective savings. The second filter is behavioral - an "opt-in" assessment will be perceived as valuable, while a mandatory compliance report will likely sit on a shelf. The internet is great for presenting information and encouraging people to take action. People who click a button requesting an audit are much more likely to use it to save energy.

In addition, a suite of analytics has evolved around remote energy analytics, so a building owner can use resources efficiently. For example, an analysis of interval electricity data could point out an opportunity to save energy by simply adjusting operating schedules. Or monthly gas data can be regressed against weather (see: inverse modeling) to show an inefficient heating system. As a result of internet-enabled analysis, auditing resources can be used much more efficiently than the "audit everything" policies in place today. These tools would fit in between the "Preliminary Energy-Use Analysis" and "Level 1" categories in this graphic from ASHRAE, with the ability to deliver some of the benefits of Level 1 and Level 2 audits:

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3. Retro-Commissioning. When it comes to implementing energy-saving measures, all the action takes place inside of buildings, in the physical world. So what can the internet do to help? 

One major source of savings is remote monitoring after the project, ensuring persistence of savings over time. For most retro-commissioning projects, the changes to the building tend to be operational rather than major upgrades to equipment. While this means low upfront cost, it can also mean the improvements are easily "undone," and deteriorating savings are a major issue. What if a building owner could look at the performance of the project in an internet browser or - better yet - in a quarterly email providing updates on the savings? This is a low-cost way to ensure lasting savings from energy upgrades, all made possible through basic internet technology.

This is not measurement & verification per se (although that becomes more affordable with the internet too). Just simple monitoring to track performance over time and identify any slippage in savings.

Energy Efficiency of the 21st Century

It is time to apply the technologies of the Information Age to deliver more energy efficiency. Used in concert with the policy innovations like those endorsed by the SEE Action network, low-cost internet technology can have a major impact on the energy services industry. Let's get energy online!

P.S. If you're interested in the policy side of improving energy efficiency, take a look at the National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency. Lots of great research and information, as well as some targeted policy advice.