Where Is ‘Big Data’ for Building Energy Headed?

March 25, 2013
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Retroficiency Demand Map“Big Data” analytics has come to the area of building energy conservation—and in some big ways. Several companies use large volumes of data, cloud computing and advanced energy efficiency analysis to perform virtual, hands-free energy audits of commercial buildings and facilities.

Some have even called it Big Data, though these data analytics don’t crunch the kinds of numbers done by IT standards.

So where’s all of this sort-of “big” energy data headed? Boston-based Retroficiency has an idea. Not only is the startup using data analytics to provide building owners, utilities and energy service providers potential savings information about large portfolios of buildings. Retroficiency and others in this space could use the many data points at their disposal to identify the markets and even pricing for new technologies being sold into commercial spaces.

Since its inception in 2009, Retroficiency has performed virtual and automated energy audits for 300 million square feet of commercial space. The company uses interval data of a building’s energy consumption and asset information in combination with building size, weather and other data to identify energy usage patterns and areas of potential cost savings.

“We’re sitting on 300 million square feet of building space today,” says Retroficiency CEO Bennett Fisher. “Let’s say Philips has a new LED. We can run it against that 300 million square feet and see what buildings will be good for that. And what if we could tell them what to price it at to capture a part of the market?”

Like the exciting and somewhat scary direction of Big Data in general, energy data analytics can be used to optimize targeted marketing efforts while customizing choices for consumers—in this case, building owners. Retroficiency already uses its data to help match buildings with specific energy savings needs to utilities’ energy-efficiency and rebate programs.

Retroficiency says it has saved its customers 1.4 billion kilowatt-hours in energy thus far, and its software is used by building controls companies such as Schneider Electric and Trane.

Virtual vs. On-site Audits

Retroficiency performs Virtual Energy Assessments of buildings, without ever stepping on site, by using the building’s address and interval data of energy consumption collected from the utility. From this it comes up with a demand map that shows patterns in heating and cooling and electrical use.

Virtual audits such as these are gaining popularity among utilities, energy services companies (ESCOs) and building owners, as they are often used in lieu of time-consuming on-premise audits. “Utilities have these goals and mandates to hit, and they just can’t do it with the scale provided by on-premise audits,” Fisher says. “Using interval data, we can prioritize a building’s energy savings opportunities in a matter of minutes.”

“The overarching problem in the industry is that the manual process is very unscalable,” he adds. “It would take every auditor working around the clock for 22 years to assess which buildings have the right opportunities. Our whole mission is to bring scale to energy efficiency.”

Virtual audits do have shortcomings, though, as they often can’t identify issues that are noticeable on a more detailed, in-person audit. But they can be used as a way to start the process and identify areas where a building or buildings in a large portfolio can make deeper changes to save energy and money.

And although analytics like this can pull out trends among large portfolios of buildings, identifying which buildings should focus on lighting or HVAC, for example, can be limiting. “If you don’t do a comprehensive evaluation you’re going to be missing out on savings opportunities,” says Mike Kaplan, Retroficiency’s vice president of marketing.

Retroficiency's Automated Energy Audit can be used in conjunction with an on-site audit.

Retroficiency’s Automated Energy Audit can be used in conjunction with an on-site audit.

Retroficiency says its Automated Energy Audits can be used to augment manual, on-premise audits of buildings by helping to streamline the data collection process, build accurate energy models and refine recommendations.

The Automated Energy Audits use asset data collected from the building management, such as square footage, use types, hours of occupation, and types of lighting. This information is combined with other data in an algorithm to infer thousands of data points of energy consumption in a building. The asset data analysis also yields more detailed energy savings recommendations, such as what lights and other technologies may be best retrofitted in a building.

Retroficiency is also working to identify energy savings in small businesses. The company recently partnered with COSE (Council on Smaller Enterprises) in Ohio, which will use Retroficiency’s software to administrate utility-funded energy assessments of small- to medium-size businesses in its area.

Bright Data Future?

The age of sort-of big data analytics is certainly here in building energy audits. Yet this market still has a long way to go. A majority of buildings still don’t have access to their interval data, say Fisher and Kaplan, as many still lack interval meters or smart meters to log that information.

One trend that could accelerate this is the disclosure of energy data of large buildings, being proposed or enacted in Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and other cities. Though much of that disclosure centers around using Energy Star scores derived from the EPA’s Portfolio Manager, which Fisher and Kaplan say don’t paint the whole picture of a building’s energy usage and savings.

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