Monday 11 February 2013

The internet and the ubiquity of high volume, low cost communications and information processing has introduced us to the power of ‘big data’ and data transparency in many fields and now is the time to apply it to building energy use. In September New York City published the 2011 energy benchmarking results for large commercial properties. Data on 2,065 buildings covering more than 530 million square feet of space was released including the energy use intensity (EUI), energy per square foot, and a weather corrected energy use intensity, greenhouse gas emissions, water user per square foot and the Energy Star rating where applicable.


The benchmarking report found that if all the inefficient large buildings were brought up to the median EUI the energy consumption in the city’s large buildings would be reduced by 18% and greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. Other cities are now following New York’s lead.


Although benchmarking has its issues, if done properly it can be a powerful tool, especially if the results are put in the public domain – for both individuals and companies. Evidence from modern psychology shows the power of reporting performance publicly (see Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, Penguin 2011 for a discussion of this applied to individuals). Benchmarking alone may lead to energy savings as building owners of poorly performing buildings compare their poor performance to their peers and take action, either through better management or investment. For the city or region benchmarking, if done on a consistent, long-term basis, can demonstrate progress towards a goal.


We know for sure that large savings can be achieved by better building management. FirstFuel, a US based energy analytics company this week released data that shows that operational improvements are a bigger part of potential energy savings in commercial real estate than is commonly realized and in many cases requires little or no cost.

Evidence from UK companies like Matrix Sustainable Energy show time and time again that managing energy through the better use of Building Management Systems produces savings, often with paybacks in weeks or months.

Building technologies, everything from HVAC through to lighting to adaptive materials, are increasingly equipped with sensors and communication capabilities. The innovators of Silicon Valley and elsewhere are adding sensors and communications to everything, even down to individual light fittings and thermostats. Buildings are beginning to join ‘the internet of things’.

We need to ensure we can use all the data that will be emerging from buildings to benchmark, drive action and measure progress against goals as well as the actual performance of efficiency investments, as well as ultimately link to a smarter distribution grid, ideally with dynamic pricing. That will take new policies and leadership from building owners and utilities, as well as government agencies to take a new look at energy data and make it widely available.

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Dr Steven Fawkes

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