Advanced Energy Benchmarking

April 1, 2012
How new applications are delivering cost, comfort, sustainability benefits

With so much talk about energy — where we get it, how much we consume, what it costs — it is surprising how inattentive many organizations are to the amount of energy they consume from month to month and year to year. Benchmarking, either internally between facilities or externally against industry standards, can help organizations achieve significant efficiency gains. This article will discuss new applications enabling easier system integration and more efficient data management, visualization, and analytics, driving significant cost savings and making possible new approaches to benchmarking.

Spreadsheets and On-site Software

Some organizations use simple spreadsheets to track building energy use and identify any large, unusual increases in consumption. Though not without its benefits, this practice is far from perfect. Typically, it requires tedious data entry and time-consuming spreadsheet maintenance. What's more, the potential for mistakes exists, and information is difficult to share across an organization. While data problems may be identified during an internal or third-party audit, corrections can require significant effort and time.

Some organizations utilize on-site software, which provides more efficient data-management capabilities and better insight into consumption and requires less staff time for data-quality assurance than spreadsheets. It does, however, come with its own set of problems. First, an organization must make the significant capital investment of acquiring equipment, including servers and processing power, to run the software. Second, information-technology (IT) resources must be available to manage the software, which can be burdensome to an already stretched organization. Third, whenever a new version of the software is released, the organization must invest time and effort to back up data and work through the upgrading process, assuming it has the expertise to do so. Lastly, on-site software typically lacks the ability to collect and manage data from geographically dispersed locations.

Web-connected Applications

Web-connected applications delivered in a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model provide easier system integration and more efficient data management, visualization, and analytics than spreadsheets and on-site software and enable organizationwide benchmarking. A Web-enabled energy-management system pulls data from multiple sources across an organization's portfolio of facilities. Hosted SaaS applications allow facility managers and building operators to interact with building systems in real time using smartphones, tablets, and pagers, sometimes all at once. Benchmarking can make the information easier to understand and act on.

In addition to pulling data from geographically dispersed facilities, Web-connected applications can present data from all sites operated by an organization, with no need to manually export data from various building-management systems (BMS) and use a spreadsheet to compare them. Benchmarking can be an effective way to identify poor performers and develop an improvement strategy. For example, dashboards can be set up to display the monthly energy consumption of an organization's five largest locations. If those buildings have similar characteristics, their energy performance should be comparable.

Normalizing data according to building size can provide great insight into performance. Software typically can expedite this task and make data more useful. For example, an organization with a variety of retail locations might want to look at energy consumption per square foot. Differences in energy use may lead the organization to look at operation procedures or maintenance schedules.

Industrial and manufacturing-focused organizations may want to use production as a normalizing factor, benchmarking facilities by the energy needed to produce a unit.

Normalizing energy data according to weather allows organizations to conduct more accurate benchmarking. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is available in many commercial energy-management software applications.

External Standards

It is entirely possible that the lowest-performing building in an organization's portfolio of buildings is consuming less energy than most comparable buildings in the region. Likewise, an organization's highest-performing building could be consuming more. To determine the relative performance of their buildings, organizations turn to external benchmarking.

ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager provides a score based on how buildings compare to buildings identified as similar in the U.S. Department of Energy's Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey. Scores, which range from 1 to 100, represent percentiles; thus, a score of 75 means a building performs better than 75 percent of its peers. Hosted SaaS applications can enter a building's energy information into this free online tool automatically and provide scores to users. Trending and graphing capabilities can help an organization make changes to improve its score and tell a compelling story about its efforts.

The U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program requires buildings to meet specific criteria — from design to materials used in construction. An organization can use software to compare its LEED-certified buildings to its broader portfolio or track the improvements of buildings that have been certified. These reporting capabilities can make a business case to expand the pursuit of LEED certification to other buildings.

Advanced Benchmarking and Modeling

Web-hosted software can streamline the collection, management, and analysis of data. Building performance can be compared and targeted based on energy intensity (e.g., energy consumed per square foot or unit produced) and functional energy usage (e.g., lighting, cooling, ventilation). The analytics can be used to automatically generate calibrated models that can aid the identification and assessment of energy-efficiency opportunities. These models can be used to validate savings generated from energy-efficiency projects and monitor building performance to ensure long-term savings persistence.

Not only can owners assess the value of retrofit opportunities, estimating how much money they can save over a specific period of time, they can drill down to sources of problems and recommend solutions. No longer is it enough merely to determine a building meets an external protocol or is not performing to standards. Now, owners must be much more specific regarding where to look for energy waste or energy efficiency. With advanced analytics, organizations even can estimate return on investment.

Enabled by SaaS

With the proliferation of cloud computing and SaaS, the benchmarking strategies detailed above can be delivered quickly, efficiently, and at a compelling price point. The SaaS model uses the Internet to store, manage, and process data. In other words, all processing power is handled off site and not by an organization's computers, which minimizes the need for upfront capital and ongoing IT maintenance. All that is required to take advantage of cloud computing are Internet access and a link to any device or system used to gather data.

The SaaS business model provides the flexibility to select only the most critical software applications, eliminating the need to purchase unnecessary capabilities and making solutions more readily accessible to a broad range of users. Also, it allows organizations to pay for applications on a subscription basis. If an organization feels it is not getting the value it expected, it can cancel its subscription.

Applications delivered through SaaS are updated automatically by the service provider, and online technical support is available to ensure an organization gets the maximum benefit from its investment. Additionally, online user communities enable organizations to connect with subject-matter experts, industry thought leaders, and others to share tips, propose and refine ideas, answer questions, and learn about the latest trends in building efficiency.

SaaS applications provide deep, timely analysis of building performance customized to user needs. The insightful analysis and actionable information made possible by the software enables performance benchmarking between buildings, which can be used for strategic and operational decision-making. Users now have the ability to proactively manage and optimize the performance of their building portfolio. The result is energy-efficient buildings that meet or exceed performance goals and deliver cost, comfort, and sustainability benefits.

Did you find this article useful? Send comments and suggestions to Executive Editor Scott Arnold at [email protected].

With significant software-development and enterprise energy and sustainability experience, Joseph Aamidor is product manager, Panoptix energy applications, for Johnson Controls Inc. Previously, he led development of the mobile-source sections of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks and worked with governments and corporations to measure and mitigate carbon emissions. As program manager, energy and sustainable technology, for Johnson Controls, Jim Kummer, PE, develops technology and services to support a broad range of energy-efficiency offerings. He has more than 30 years of experience in the energy-efficiency industry, the last 10 focused on the integration of information technologies into the built environment for the creation and maintenance of smart, high-performance buildings.