Turbocharging Efficiency with the Internet

on October 11, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Energy efficiency is finally top of mind for building owners and policy makers alike. There is a general agreement that buildings could be saving an enormous volume of kilowatt-hours and btus, with their associated dollars and tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Energy benchmarking is the clear first step to managing energy, but how can policy-makers and building owners go from comparing data to saving real energy and what’s really top of mind—money?

The Future of Efficiency, Today

Many local policies implemented today include energy audits and retro-commissioning as the follow-up to benchmarking. For example, this diagram shows how layers of policy can help building owners understand their energy use (benchmarking), identify opportunities for savings (audits) and implement low-cost improvements for immediate savings (retro-commissioning).


This framework is simple and sensible, and is a powerful step forward in thoughtful public policy. However, the role of technology and its ability to drastically reduce costs is conspicuously absent. In fact, the approach outlined in the diagram above, has been employed by energy service companies since the 1980’s (and earlier!). During this same period, radical process transformation with the assistance of new technology has taken place in almost every industry. Though the framework for energy efficiency programs will remain the same, technology can accelerate the efficiency of efficiency programs and dramatically improve project ROI.

Moving beyond the status quo

The core technologies used for energy management today are historical peers of typewriters. A typical process involves hours of analysis and time spent tracking down paper bills, typing the numbers into a spreadsheet and uploading data into a tool like Energy Star Portfolio Manager. Following this arduous data collection process is an in-person audit, expending even more time and human energy with costs starting at $2500 per building. Eventually, contractors come to the facility to actually implement energy improvements; only then do the savings begin.

It’s in the computer

There are many ways the internet can help unlock energy efficiency, but let’s focus on the three phases of the workflow from the diagram above. At each step, low-cost technology can have a major positive impact.

1. Benchmarking. Understanding how much energy a building is using and how that compares to similar buildings should be simple. Rather than relying on data entered painfully by hand, platforms can pull utility data automatically from the utility, thereby improving the efficiency of benchmarking data collection—and, ultimately, its utilization. Consider the low compliance rates for benchmarking programs in the Seattle and San Francisco. Would more people disclose energy use if it were easier?

2. Audit. The largest and most immediate cost savings the internet can offer is in the area of energy audits. Though highly accurate and insightful, physical audits take a lot of time, cost thousands of dollars and often end up sitting on a shelf.

A more efficient approach is to implement in-person audits only for buildings most likely to benefit from them and deliver a meaningful ROI to owners. New technology makes it possible to filter potential audits in two important ways.

  • Technical – a simple remote analysis can easily show which buildings from a large portfolio are operating below average and therefore are likely to turn up cost-effective savings. Additional analytics like interval data assessments and inverse modeling can identify likely problems before sending an expert to the building.
  • Behavioral – an “opt-in” assessment will be perceived as valuable, while a mandatory compliance report will likely sit on a shelf. The internet is built to present 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.

3. Retro-Commissioning. When it comes to implementing energy-saving measures, all the action takes place inside of physical buildings, so project managers often need a deeper understanding of how the “distant” internet can make a difference. One major source of savings is remote monitoring after the project, ensuring persistence of savings over time. If a building owner can look at the performance of the project in an internet browser or—better yet—in a regular email providing updates on the savings, they can better track and manage ROI. Adding automatic weather adjustments can drive even greater savings. Web-based measurement and verification tools are a low-cost way to ensure lasting savings from energy upgrades.

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 rise of local policy innovations around energy disclosure, low-cost internet technology can have a major impact on the energy services industry. Let’s get energy online!

Kelly Smith is the director of building analytics for WegoWise, which offers a web-based tool to benchmark building portfolio energy and water use and identify easy, cost-effective retrofits.