Optimizing Energy Use in Buildings

Optimizing Energy Use in Buildings

By Andrew McAllister, Commissioner, California Energy Commission

Andrew McAllister, Commissioner, California Energy Commission


You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Understanding the energy usage of a building, in relation both to others and to an objective standard, informs action. In the energy world, benchmarking is used to compare the performance of a building to itself, similar buildings or a model. By comparing buildings, property owners can assess opportunities for improvement and quantify energy savings.

“One benefit to benchmarking, is the ability for prospective tenants to compare performance levels of various buildings, enabling them to choose a space or building with lower operating costs”

Identifying what data to collect is the first step. Next, building owners, their agents, and/or consumers (owners) need access to that data. In California, utilities will provide aggregated whole building energy use information to building owners, upon request. The Energy Commission will have access to this information and will publically disclose basic energy performance information for commercial (above 50,000 sq ft) and multifamily buildings (above 16 units).

1. How can technology be used to mitigate rising Big Data costs?

Recently, Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law (Assembly Bill 802, Williams) that makes it much more straightforward for building owners to access building energy use information. 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 access whole-building utility information.

Previously some (not all) utilities provided information after several months (or even over a year), if owners submitted tenant consent forms, which are tedious and time-consuming to pursue. Now building owners have access to whole-building energy use information from their utility in less time, in an easy to use format that provides valuable information to begin understanding opportunities to save energy. No tenant-specific information is provided to the owner, yet investments in efficiency improvements can benefit tenants directly.

The Advanced Metering Infrastructure (“smart meters”), now installed in the majority of California homes and businesses, is another example of the data now available to enable analysis, which can in turn inform consumer and business investments in energy efficiency.

2. Which growing or future technology innovation are you personally excited about?

Every consumer of energy deserves straightforward access to relevant information. Further, the marketplace and local governments need access to geographic-specific information to meet their business, planning, and investment needs. A quickly growing array of third-party analytical tools, including many that leverage smart meter functionality, can produce high quality, customer-specific intelligence at relatively low cost. Pervasive application of data analytics and other common-sense informational tools, provided either through utilities or direct-to customer will allow the energy efficiency marketplace to form ideas grow over time, encouraging a shift toward informed behavior and well-targeted investment. These opportunities are now available in California, because of the Advanced Metering Infrastructure or “smart meters.”

3. We are all dealing with technology every day. How does Big Data drive your life?

California is home to an increasing number of firms specializing in the optimization of energy use in buildings—everything from the optimal sizing of rooftop solar power systems to real-time tuning of light levels and HVAC efficiency in office buildings, both saving energy and creating beautiful and comfortable indoor spaces. Actual data on energy use and building characteristics are essential for these tools to provide value. Armed with such knowledge, building owners can harness private capital to invest in energy-related improvements.

Benchmarking allows prospective tenants to compare performance levels of various buildings, enabling them to choose a space or building with lower operating costs. In addition, benchmarking and other customer energy use analytics mobilize the energy efficiency market, which can create new jobs.

4. What set of skills do you think is required for the technology leaders to be successful in the new enterprise landscape?

As an energy policy maker, I strive to help the Energy Commission implement policies and create programs that encourage energy efficiency in the built environment. Increasingly, the private sector is finding ways to take these policies and express them in the marketplace in ways that create value for people—users of energy, building owners and tenants. Benchmarking can identify trends in energy consumption, and over time, the data will provide a wealth of analytical opportunities to inform future energy policies, not only at the state level but also at local levels. Tech leaders will be those with not only the analytical understanding of how to create value by improving building performance, but also the vision and communications skills to build markets—real customer bases—willing to pay for these services.

Few buyers or renters are thinking about energy costs when they purchase or lease a building or space. This data can help identify and create incentives for investment in buildings with the most cost-effective savings. Our long-term goal must be to ensure efficiency is attractive, straightforward and routine across the marketplace—in each building improvement project and equipment replacement.

5. What do you think are the biggest obstacles that face in working in a more agile and outcomes based model?

There are real, persistent barriers to action in existing building markets. Residents and building owners need simple access to understandable, reliable information, as well as consistent engagement with qualified service providers. If owners do not know about or understand the process to acquire building energy use information, then the best data set is not going to help inform energy efficiency decisions.

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