Expert Q&A: Overcoming Data Collection Barriers for Portfolio Manager (Pt 1)

Urjanet Inc  |  June 7, 2016   |  Energy & Sustainability  


Benchmarking in Portfolio Manager requires a variety of data from many different sources. When benchmarking for the first time, building owners, who are ultimately responsible for submitting their building’s data into Portfolio Manager, do not always know how to most efficiently gather all the information they need. We interviewed the Cadmus Group’s Senior Analyst Zach Shelin, who consults for EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Program Manager of ENERGY STAR Commercial Buildings Leslie Cook to discuss the specific data collection challenges that building owners face and how they can work through them. Shelin and Cook focused on the value of benchmarking, data aggregation trends and best practices, and how building owners can better leverage their data to drive savings.

Q: What data is needed for benchmarking?

ZS: For one, it depends on what the city is hoping to collect. At a basic level, all cities require 12 continuous calendar months of energy data and basic building information. One crucial data point is the building’s zip code. Portfolio Manager uses a building’s zip code to match the building to a weather station, which then allows Portfolio Manager to provide weather-normalized energy performance metrics. It’s really important for Portfolio Manager users to provide accurate property use details (weekly operating hours, main shift workers, etc.) so that the ENERGY STAR score is calculated properly, since cities are collecting the scores in addition to energy and water performance.

Q: What are some examples of how building owners have struggled to access whole building energy and property data?

ZS: The biggest barrier people face in using Portfolio Manager is the data entry. It can sometimes be difficult for building owners to get energy use data for space used by corporate tenants in their building. The data is often kept at a more centralized corporate level and not accessible at the tenant level.

For example, let’s take a ground-level CVS store in a larger office building. The actual manager of the CVS might not have access to that space’s utility data because all utility data is managed at a separate corporate location. Although the building owner has direct access to the tenant manager, he cannot easily connect with the right person at CVS corporate. Even if the building owner does successfully reach the right person at corporate, CVS may not want to release the data to the building owner, who is ultimately responsible for complying with the mandate. At that point, it can turn into a political battle over who actually owns the data.

LC: Cities are trying to clarify issues regarding data ownership and some have been successful at determining that building owners are the keepers of that information. In some markets, utilities have committed to and are delivering whole building aggregate information to the building owners. For multi-tenanted buildings in Manhattan, building owners can now contact Con Ed, who will provide that whole building aggregated information so that the owners can benchmark at that level.

I think the utilities play a large part in solving that problem. All the cities that are implementing these laws (and the building owners in the jurisdictions) are very much wanting that information and are working with utilities to increase data access.

ZS: California recently passed what’s called Assembly Bill 802. Under AB 802, owners of commercial buildings with three or more active utility accounts and owners of multifamily properties with five or more accounts will be able to able to access whole-building utility information directly from the utility. Before this bill, owners had to seek authorization from each and every one of their tenants to get whole building data even though if the owner were able to, they could actually walk into the basement and look at the meter for the building.

Now, with AB-802, the utilities will be releasing whole building data to the building owner in electronic format. This sometimes raises issues of its own in terms of how the utilities aggregate data from different meters which may have different billing periods, so they’re working through that as well.

Q: What approach have you seen cities take to help building owners improve data organization that have been really successful?

ZS:  Some cities use a Portfolio Manager data request, which cities can share with compliance officers via a URL link and which ultimately produces an Excel-based report that the cities can download once the compliance officers release the necessary data. Seattle on the other hand uses a different approach. Seattle actually asks affected building owners to share data to Seattle’s centralized account via web services, so they sort of have a real time window into data that’s used for compliance.  The customers still provide the data, but then instead of needing to press a button that says, “I hereby submit this to Seattle,” Seattle just has access to the data via the web services API once it’s entered.

Q: What are the most common ways users are entering data into Portfolio Manager?

ZS: I would say the trend that is growing most is entering data via web services through a third-party provider, but of course there are some who use spreadsheet upload templates or type the information in manually. On the West Coast, it’s a little bit different in the sense that there are more utilities that have web services capability, so they have direct integrations with the Portfolio Manager API (application programming interface). Southern California Electric, PG&E, and Seattle Light and Power all have web services linking directly to Portfolio Manager, so it’s less common for Portfolio Manager users in those areas to require a private third party provider.

I think one aspect that’s quietly gaining steam is the idea that while a lot of utilities may not necessarily have the resources to build an API to Portfolio Manager, there’s a growing number that are actually leveraging service providers to build the integration for them. That way, they can offer API connectivity between their data and Portfolio Manager without having to hire their own staff to build out the development.

Click here to view a list of utilities providing energy data for benchmarking in ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager.

It’s interesting to see the number of different approaches, layers, business models, and offerings that these software companies are providing.

LC: By the end of 2015, more than 200,000 buildings out of the total 450,000 buildings that benchmarked in Portfolio Manager had entered their data through web services. Web services is definitely gaining popularity.

Q: For the data that’s coming in via web services, are there any audits in Portfolio Manager to check data quality and accuracy, or is the assumption that the third party provider is running those?

ZS: There are some cities like Chicago that periodically require the data be verified by an outside party every few years. Portfolio Manager also has a data quality check in place, and the tool requires folks to create a preview report before they actually submit the data as a response to a city’s data request.

Part of the reason for that is that if any of the buildings in your data set cannot calculate a site energy use intensity or total water use (if the data request includes water metrics) when you create the required preview, there are flags that appear in a special alert screen. If these metrics aren’t calculating for a property, it means something is definitely wrong with the data.

However, users who are on that screen and see the issues can still choose to release the data anyways. ENERGY STAR is not in a position to be a gatekeeper of the data, but we at least want the tool to let users know that there’s an issue. They can use a series of links that Portfolio Manager provides on that alert screen to go straight to the pages with the errors and correct them. If they refresh the report after making corrections, Portfolio Manager tells them if the data has been fully corrected or if there are still some lingering issues that they need to address.

Q: What specific types of errors trigger alerts in Portfolio Manager?

ZS: One common error is simply incomplete data, where data for a portion of the performance period is missing. Another alert is for duplicates or overlaps. For example, the user might have mistakenly entered information for the month of February twice. Also, a small gap will trigger an alert. For instance, if a user forgets that there are 31 days in January and enters data from January 1st to January 30th, Portfolio Manager will return an error alert.

Portfolio Manager allows you to add meters for your property and then choose only a subset of those meters to be what we call associated to the property, which means they are counted in the property’s performance metrics. If you have a sub-meter that specifically monitors HVAC energy consumption, and that consumption is also counted on your building’s master meter, you wouldn’t want to be double-counting your HVAC utility usage so you would choose not to associate that HVAC meter to the property. Another error is forgetting to add any meters to that list of meters included in the property’s performance metrics.

Stay tuned for part 2, where Shelin and Cook share even more insights on overcoming Portfolio Manager data collection barriers.

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