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Berkeley Lab Study Quantifies the Return on Energy Analytics in Buildings

Good intentions only go so far. Because of that, there has been plenty of hesitant excitement after hearing grand goals of energy efficiency by cities worldwide. As part of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, goals include 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2040 and 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We can, for the most part, agree that decreasing energy consumption and reducing carbon emissions is beneficial for global health and from a cost-savings perspective, but the question remains; how do we do it?

Meeting lofty goals requires a two-part approach of data measurement and operational modification. Numerous software platforms advertise the ability to do precisely this by collecting data from as many sources as they can hook into and using that data to optimize how a building is running. The data, and there is a lot of it, can alert building operators and facility or energy managers to unnecessary building energy use during off-hours or the simultaneous heating and cooling in the same zone, as well as many other suboptimal conditions. However, many buildings have been slow to adopt these energy management information systems (EMIS).

Four years ago, an initiative to expand the use of EMIS began by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the Department of Energy’s Smart Energy Analytics Campaign. With an intent to prove that energy analytics can lead to rapid paybacks, this was the first large-scale study to verify the value of information technology installed and used by stakeholders in facilities management, sustainability, and energy management. Wrapped up this summer, the campaign documented that analytics were driving reductions in participants’ collective energy bills of $95 million a year.

Campaign participants included 104 organizations with large portfolios consisting of 6,500 buildings totaling 567 million square feet of floor space. Some participants included Stanford University, Kaiser Permanente, and Sprint. Some buildings were using IoT networks or had baseline metering and monitoring systems but many were new to EMIS capabilities. I wanted to know more about what was happening behind the scenes of this massive study so I reached out to Jessica Granderson, PhD, Staff Scientist and Deputy Division Director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the Building Technology and Urban Systems Division.

“We had three main goals for the campaign,” explained Granderson. “For one, we wanted to promote tech adoption within a broad but targeted network of partners. Our second goal was to provide technical assistance to those partners so that they could maximize value from technology. Analytics don’t save money by themselves so there was a best practice and technical assistance element to what we did.”

The initiative included 40 different commercially available EMIS offerings. Comparing energy consumption before and after the EMIS was in place wasn’t the only outcome; campaign participants became power users. With the support of the EMIS, users were able to make operational improvements like better scheduling, improving set points, enhancing automated controls, and then implementing improvements into their building systems.

But savings didn’t happen overnight. The study found that the first year was spent getting the technology up and running and integrated into ongoing business practices. These months were also spent discovering issues in operations and maintenance and then modifying them. Indicative savings were observable in the second year with a continued downward trend in energy consumption as time went on.

Granderson explained the third goal of the campaign was to document their findings for a broader audience, including costs of technology implementations and what proven best practices were. The Department of Energy has its Building Performance Database representing the largest dataset of information about the energy-related characteristics of commercial and residential buildings, and now the data collected through the Smart Energy Analytics Campaign offers the world’s largest collection of data on the costs and benefits of building energy analytics technology. 

Their data revealed significant findings about the true costs of EMIS, a factor often kept behind the curtains until a few meetings in with a vendor. The resulting report evaluated EMIS systems such as Energy Information Systems (EIS) and Fault Detection and Diagnostic (FDD) systems on a per point, per building, and per square foot basis. EIS are primarily focused on meter analytics while FDD integrates HVAC operational data from BAS, which matters when comparing base costs at sites with complex systems. Overall, and depending on the type of EMIS selected, the average installation and software was between $0.02 and $0.08 per square foot, while the average payback was just 2 years. Details can be found in the final report.

It can be daunting to bring an older or existing building up to the capabilities needed to meet energy-related requirements. Large capital investments in energy retrofits are too important to leave to a guess and check process; building investors and managers want to be able to understand the return on their investments. But the data from EMIS can help point building managers in the right direction. As the study continued, buildings saw increasing reductions in energy use, “We can’t contribute all of it to analytics, but there is a strong indication,” stated Granderson.

Saving $95 million in annual energy savings is the equivalent of 4 trillion BTUs of annual energy savings, or enough to power more than 44,000 U.S. households for a year. With numbers like this, it’s an exciting time for controls and analytics in buildings. Once buildings have analytics in place and they’re integrated into operations and maintenance, day-to-day operations can become efficient as real time data feeds real time decisions and modifications. This leads to well-tuned buildings with consistent, impressive performance.

In fact, about one-third of participants in the campaign are planning to install a new EMIS or installed a new EMIS during the study. One-third used an existing EMIS and one-third upgraded their EMIS to deploy in more buildings or add additional functionality. For those with plans to install, 32 percent planned to install an EIS, 42 percent planned to install FDD, and 26 percent planned to install both EIS and FDD technologies.

With this campaign finished, what’s next for Granderson and her team? A renewed focus on buildings that are grid-interactive, closing the gap between analytics and controls, and working to increase automation and efficiency. Buildings operating with low occupancy can greatly benefit from the operational efficiency and remote access that EMIS offer. Hopefully, thanks to transparent studies like The Department of Energy’s Smart Energy Analytics Campaign, the building industry will be more willing to invest in energy efficiency technology and the world will have even more reason to be cautiously optimistic about the sustainability goals that have been set by governments around the world.

Related Article: Biden Targets Buildings In Ambitious Climate Plan

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