You’ve heard about “Big Data” and how it’s being used to track our purchases and preferences, but data can also be used to help buildings save energy.
One company on the data bandwagon is Massachusetts-based FirstFuel, which uses data analytics to identify energy-saving opportunities in buildings, institutions and utilities—without ever stepping foot in the property.
Yes, that means no time-consuming, on-premise energy audit. With today’s technologies and its Remote Building Analytics (RBA) platform, FirstFuel can collect thousands of data points just by knowing the building’s address and collecting a year’s worth of utility data, at intervals of 15 minutes or an hour.
The address reveals weather data, humidity, wind, solar radiance and other factors that affect a building’s climate. Then, with GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping, FirstFuel can zoom in on a building and see how big it is, assess its physical structure and characteristics such as the window-to-wall ratio.
“From there we can tease out patterns hidden in those data points and figure out all the sort of things, such as whether the cooling mechanisms are efficient,” says Indran Ratnathicam, FirstFuel’s director of marketing. The company can see weather and occupancy related loads, end-use consumption and daily usage profiles.
“Each clue gives you a little tease to see what’s going on in the building,” he adds. “We’ll run 100 analyses on every data set.”
By looking at the data, the company can deduce the scheduling, sequencing of equipment, temperature set points and more. Ratnathicam says FirstFuel can even see the difference between electrical lighting loads and plug loads by their electronic signatures in the data.
The result is a web portal-based assessment comprised of a building analysis, end-use benchmarking, and recommendations for energy savings, as well as monitoring and verification of actions over time.
Field trials with Fraunhofer USA and The Cadmus Group found that FirstFuel’s end-use values averaged within 7 percent of building submeter values and 2 percent to 10 percent of circuit-level metered end use values.
Through a sample of 60 million square feet of commercial building space, the company found that 51 percent of energy efficiency savings in buildings is achievable through low-cost operational solutions, amounting to $12 million in savings for the sample and $17 billion if extrapolated across the entire U.S. commercial building market. For example, a building might save more just by changing the scheduling and sequencing of HVAC systems. Many buildings also use heating and cooling systems simultaneously.
What about Building Automation?
That doesn’t mean energy-saving technologies aren’t important as well. Ratnathicam sees opportunities for using data analytics in tandem with building automation systems to see how much certain changes or initiatives are going to save. And, he says, “building automation can help you implement a lot of these savings.”
FirstFuel even has an app on building controls giant Johnson Control’s Panoptix system, which allows building owners remote audits and energy savings monitoring.
From Hiccups to Success
FirstFuel’s management and staff, Ratnathicam says, combines expertise in enterprise software, building analytics and building engineering. Entrepreneurs Swapnil Shah and Ken Kolkebeck founded the company and have raised $12.5 million in venture capital.
There have been hiccups along the way. “We’re learning new systems every day,” Ratnathicam says. When the company first launched, it learned that steam chillers couldn’t be treated the same as natural gas-powered systems analytically, although they both started with monthly consumption data. FirstFuel had to learn about the ancillary electrical components of the steam chillers and how they should be treated in its data.
Now the company is scaling up to focus on retail environments, and is looking to the utility space, with the ability to help utilities identify patterns among similar size or types of buildings, for example.
A Department of Defense demonstration project will implement FirstFuel’s Remote Building Analytics (RBA) platform to perform zero-touch energy performance analysis across its building portfolio, identifying opportunities to significantly reduce energy spending.
“Data can help us achieve scales and some pretty dramatic drops in the overall cost of energy efficiency,” Ratnathicam says.