The Solution to Accurate Energy Data May Be Closer Than We Think

By: Karan Gupta, student at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment

karan guptaAs Lord Kelvin famously said, "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it." Here at 77 West Wacker, despite extensive metering relative to comparable buildings, we have found a lack of visibility into energy consumption data is one of the greatest barriers to implementing energy conservation measures (ECMs).

The need for detailed energy consumption data

Ideally, building equipment and tenants should be sub-metered. It might be overkill to meter every individual piece of equipment, but if all supply fans, or all water pumps, or all chillers were grouped on a single meter, understanding building behavior would be greatly simplified. Tenants, on the other hand, are sub-metered. The issue is that building management and operations do not always have access to that data because tenant consent is required to view tenant usage data. Unfortunately, a consent form does not exist in our service area to allow that. The way tenants are currently billed assumes equal energy use on a square footage basis, and therefore, does nothing to promote energy efficiency. Knowing exactly how many kilowatt-hours are used by each tenant each month would allow building management to accurately bill those tenants, thereby incentivizing conservation on their part to reduce operating costs. As building managers around the country are charged with making their buildings more efficient, they will need the tools to do so.

Since the opening of 77 West Wacker in 1992, numerous equipment upgrades and operational adjustments have resulted in huge energy savings. Certainly, these savings can be (and have been) evaluated at the aggregate level, but it is impossible to quantify the savings of individual measures without before and after data to compare. Tenant turnover further complicates this as changing use of space adds another variable. There are plenty of large portfolio owners today that prioritize buildings for energy efficiency improvements based on total energy use. The logical next step would be to prioritize spaces and equipment based on their energy use. With access to capital increasingly restricted by tight operating budgets, it is especially important to be able to assess the cost-effectiveness of ECMs. Knowing where the greatest opportunities for reductions lie and the exact size of those opportunities is critical to perform such analysis.

Once measures are implemented, they must then be tracked to verify performance, and again, that visibility is dependent on clear data. Performance tracking would further add value for certification programs such as LEED and voluntary municipal initiatives like Retrofit Chicago.

Clearly there is a market for building energy data, and anyone who has their finger on the pulse of the industry knows that there are a slew of new hardware and software companies seeking to capitalize on the opportunity. Yet, it feels like these companies are creating solutions without truly understanding the problem. New construction is one matter, where things are simplified by being able to start with a clean slate. Existing buildings have proven a greater challenge, however, and I am still looking for an accurate data collection regime that is affordable and easy to use. Interoperability between building automation systems (BAS), meters/data loggers and communications from utilities and grid operators has, surprisingly, been one of the easier hurdles to clear. But there may (fingers crossed) be a silver bullet, and it’s called monitor-based commissioning (MBCx).

A potential silver bullet: Monitor-based commissioning

MBCx is a combination of monitoring software that integrates with the BAS and engineering services to upgrade building equipment and fine-tune operations. The software monitors equipment to ensure that it is running according to specifications and is providing services (heating, cooling, ventilation, hot water, etc.) according to comfort set points. When the software detects discrepancies, it uses a complex set of algorithms to pinpoint the problem and generate a work order so that the engineering services provider can further investigate and address the issue. The appeal of such a system is that, to be effective, it would likely require monitoring at the same points where data collection is necessary for all the reasons cited earlier. This would eliminate the need for costly and redundant sub-metering and hardware/software solutions from third-party providers. Furthermore, at least in the ComEd service territory, the incentives for the implementation of MBCx are quite attractive. If it can live up to the promise, future best practice may dictate MBCx as a first step toward reducing energy use in buildings just starting down that path. MBCx has the potential to allow for the accurate a priori analysis of financial and energy savings, prioritization of projects and maximized savings from retrofits/upgrades (plus incentives), ultimately leading to faster paybacks and reinvestment into further ECMs.

We would love to hear how others have overcome data barriers. What strategies, products or services have you used at your organizations to gain the level of visibility that allows for targeted action? Has your company had a positive experience with MBCx? Let us know in the comments below.

This commentary originally appeared on our EDF Climate Corps blog.

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