Operational Improvements and the Energy Landscape of the Future

chicagoBy Domenic Armano

Each time I visit Boston, New York, San Francisco, or any of the other dozen or so cities I seem to find myself traveling between these days, I peer out of the plane at touchdown and am struck by the ever-growing forest of buildings dominating the skyline.

From Seattle’s Space Needle to Chicago’s Sears Tower, each city maintains an utterly unique image and personality. Yet, as much as I enjoy the view, those picturesque skylines ultimately represent just one thing for me (and are usually the reason I’m visiting), energy use…and waste.

According to IBM, buildings consume more energy than any other global asset and are on track to become the largest global emitters of greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decade. In 2011, U.S. utilities spent an estimated $3.3 billion of their $8.1 billion in energy efficiency budgets on the commercial buildings sector, yet as much as 30 percent of total building energy continues to be wasted.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for America to “cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years.” But is there a silver bullet to meeting such a target? Traditionally, utilities and building owners have relied upon onsite audits to identify energy efficiency opportunities in a given building. But the process is onerous, time-consuming and costly. And because the resulting findings and recommendations focus primarily on physical building retrofits, billions of dollars in operational energy efficiency opportunities are left unidentified and untapped each year.

Interested to see just how big the market opportunity was, my colleagues at FirstFuel took some time to analyze a representative sampling of buildings across our utility and government customers. In a nutshell, they found that the commercial buildings industry is sitting on an opportunity to essentially double its potential for energy savings, while simultaneously slashing efficiency implementation costs by a significant margin. The data revealed that retrofits do not provide the full picture for achieving energy and financial savings —in fact, we found that more than half of all energy efficiency savings in commercial buildings can be achieved through operational improvements, often at little to no cost to building owners and operator. When added up across all U.S. commercial buildings, this represents a whopping $17 billion opportunity for the industry.

So, what are some of the most common, operational savings opportunities, and how can they be attained? Here are just a few common offenders across a myriad of opportunities that our advanced analytics are uniquely positioned to uncover:

  • HVAC Scheduling – With so many buildings these days running on automated timers, we are used to the lights and heat being on when we come in in the morning, and we assume they turn off or down when we leave. But coordination of building automation with worker occupancy represents nearly 20 percent of the total operational savings opportunity in commercial buildings. Data from our sample suggests that nearly 60 percent of sampled buildings are ready for occupancy more than an hour before people arrive and commonly run for two-to-four hours after the building is empty.
  • Equipment Sequencing – In buildings with multiple forms or stages of HVAC , the equipment was often improperly sequenced, running the higher-power, less-efficient equipment when it wasn’t necessary. In fact, more than half of the buildings we looked at demonstrated equipment sequencing inefficiencies.
  • Simultaneous Heating and Cooling – Most efficient buildings transition from heating to cooling at a pre-defined temperature. But our analysis revealed that heating and cooling often run simultaneously for a broad degree range around that transition temperature as the building’s systems attempt to keep it at that perfect point—e.g. in many cases, even when the outdoor temps were 70+ degrees, many buildings were still running heating systems while their AC units kicked into overdrive to cool the space.

This data suggests operational energy efficiency must be taken more seriously to help utilities, government agencies and the consumers they serve to meet the ambitious targets they have set, and to reduce their overall energy costs. On a positive note, the rise of big data, big analytics and the increasingly frenetic drive to reduce global energy consumption makes the operational savings a much more compelling and achievable opportunity. And just maybe, a day will come when I look down at the skyline during takeoff and admit that widespread and largely avoidable energy waste simply isn’t a problem any longer.

FirstFuel Director of Customer Solutions, Domenic Armano has deep domain and operational experience in the energy industry. Prior to FirstFuel, Domenic was Director, Strategy & Innovation at Johnson Controls where he was responsible for the evaluation of new technologies relevant to Johnson Controls businesses. Domenic holds an MBA from Boston University, an MS in Engineering Management from Tufts University and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts. He is a licensed Professional Engineer.

[Image Credit: David Thompson, Flickr cc]

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