Expert Q&A: Driving Energy Efficiency Improvements with Better Data (Pt 1)

Urjanet Inc  |  April 29, 2016  |  Energy & Sustainability  

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Reducing building energy consumption is a collaborative effort, requiring buy-in from stakeholders and policymakers from individual building occupants to the U.S. federal government. We interviewed The Institute for Market Transformation’s (IMT) Sr. Program Associate Zachary Hart, who is working on the front lines to drive change and promote energy efficiency from a policy and program perspective. Based in Washington, D.C., IMT is a nonprofit organization that promotes energy efficiency in buildings. In addition to policy and program development, IMT seeks to ignite greater efficiency investment in the building sector through technical and market research and promotion of best practices and knowledge exchange.

Hart shared with us his unique insights on the data required for benchmarking building energy use using ENERGY STAR® Portfolio Manager®, the complexities of gathering and inputting that data, and how policy is shaping energy-saving efforts across the U.S.

Q: Can you provide some further background on the work you do at IMT?

Zachary Hart: IMT works with a number of different jurisdictions to help them develop and deploy policies and programs that reduce energy consumption in the buildings in their city. My role is working mainly in support of the City Energy Project, which is a groundbreaking national initiative to improve the energy efficiency of buildings in major American cities.

We’re helping those cities figure out tailored policies and programs that work best for their local conditions as they try to reduce energy use in buildings. Some cities are working on ways to unlock financing for energy efficiency upgrades and others have passed policies such as energy benchmarking and transparency. We help them by providing resources and technical guidance.

Q: What do you think is the number one benefit of benchmarking?

ZH: With benchmarking, you know right off the bat that it will spur more building owners to pay more attention to their building’s energy use. Many have never tracked their building’s energy consumption before, so benchmarking can be like a wake-up call, especially for buildings whose ENERGY STAR scores are 40 or below (a score of 50 is the national median). Another main benefit is to help kick-start an industry that’s dedicated to making buildings perform really well. The goal is to cut out waste and make buildings more profitable for owners and make them better places for businesses and their employees to do their work.

It’s going to take some time, since the policies are relatively new, but the U.S. is making strides in the right direction. Information is flowing into the market in 15 cities now and we see that trend continuing.

Q: What data is needed to benchmark energy consumption in ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager?

ZH: First, you need 12 months of energy consumption data. Utilities vary in how easy they make it to get that data, so in some cases, the owner will need to go through his or her utility bills and pull the information from them.

In other cases, the utilities have created systems where they will either send the owner an Excel sheet, which has the 12 months of data for a particular meter, or in the best case scenario, they’ll automatically upload that information to the owner’s Portfolio Manager account. Obviously, the more work that a utility does up-front, the easier it is for the owner and the less likely an owner is to get errors or typos in the transcription.

In addition to the actual utility data, Portfolio Manager needs a certain amount of information about each building. The critical fields include square footage, occupancy of the building, use type, number of computers, and number of hours that the building is operational. These are all used to calculate the energy use intensity and an ENERGY STAR score.

Q: Why does data quality sometimes suffer?

ZH: To some degree, it depends on how sophisticated the owner’s record keeping has been. It’s sometimes hard for an owner to go through blueprints and determine which areas of parking count and which aren’t applicable to calculating an ENERGY STAR score.

There’s one study from Seattle that looked at data quality. The researchers found that a lot of building owners were taking their building area from the county assessor record and copying that. That can present some issues if the way that the county assessor counts gross floor area differs from the information you need for Portfolio Manager. Owners and cities administering these policies need to be aware of these potential discrepancies, which can be addressed through trainings, workshops, and compliance guides.

The complexity of utility data is also a factor. Sometimes utilities provide different consumption units than Portfolio Manager does or owners misread their bills, so that can throw things off.

Q: How accurate is most of the data entered into Portfolio Manager?

ZH: The Department of Energy (DOE) has a building performance database, which is comprised of voluntary records from buildings. They have a data cleansing process where they check to make sure that the information they’re getting looks plausible. They remove about 20% of their contributions due to errors.

Q: How does Portfolio Manager handle inaccurate data?

ZH: Portfolio Manager has some alerts built into it that were added in 2015. They do a better job of flagging, so if something seems wildly off or is past a range that Portfolio Manager has deemed plausible, an alert will show up. It’s called the Data Quality Checker.

Help centers are now looking into those alerts and writing tailored messages to those particular building owners. In Chicago, half of the building owners who were contacted by a help center about suspicious records resubmitted their reports.

Stay tuned for part 2, where Hart shares even more insights on the data required for benchmarking building energy use, the complexities of gathering and inputting that data, and energy efficiency policy in the U.S.

Want to learn more about how to drive improvements in energy efficiency with better data? In a new eBook by Urjanet, with insights from the EPA, IMT, The Cadmus Group, and Southface, you’ll learn how to comply with building energy benchmarking and transparency laws while saving money and reducing energy consumption. Download the eBook today!

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