Empower Energies Blog

Throwing Away Money on Energy Upgrades? These Tools Tell The True Story

Posted by Michael Wright


According to information from ESource and the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. colleges and universities spend, on average, $1.10 per square foot on electricity and $0.18 on natural gas annually. Typically, lighting uses a significant amount of total energy generated (31 percent), followed by space heating (28 percent) and water heating (25 percent).

The problem is, those averages are rough at best. According to 2015 data from Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager benchmarking system, campus dormitories, for example, range in energy use intensity from less than 40 to more than 600 kBtu per foot, with those at the 95th percentile using almost eight times the energy of those at the fifth percentile. Data indicates that the most energy intensive properties are further away from the median than the most efficient.

There are many reasons for these discrepancies in energy use, including widely ranging equipment efficiency, differing energy management practices, and variations in climate and business activities. Likewise, there are many solutions for reducing energy use, ranging from low hanging fruit such as lighting upgrades to more significant changes such as switching to new methods of power generation.

With so much variation across the board, where is a university to start in reducing its energy usage?

The answer is simple: by tracking energy usage. Only by determining their baseline can facility managers verify consumption trends and the impact of their energy efficiency upgrades.

Tracking Tools

Some facility managers find that energy dashboards are the most helpful way to track energy usage across a campus. These widely available software tools are able to graphically show real-time energy usage data from a variety of “smart” systems.

The Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, uses a dashboard energy management system for the majority of its campus, and the scheduling and optimization it has provided has helped guide the campus’ energy conservation efforts. “It’s a major portion of our budget and so it’s important to make sure we’re paying attention to it,” says John Moore, assistant vice president.

By closely monitoring energy demand, RIT has found ways to keep its electric and gas consumption static — even as the institution has added approximately 300,000 square feet in the last four years.

“We have a pretty robust plan to keep our demand within certain limits. That allows us to save money on our demand charges associated with our bill, which is very helpful,” Moore says.       

While tracking energy is a crucial first step toward conserving energy, it’s not necessary to invest in an expensive dashboard system. A simple Excel spreadsheet can be set up to track energy usage across systems and buildings. While this system might not be as elegant as some of today’s commercial dashboards, so long as a full range of up-to-date data is being entered it’s all the tracking that is really needed.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what tool is used for tracking so long as a thorough baseline is available to demonstrate savings or excesses in energy consumption — and so long as that data is being referenced on a regular basis to measure variations.

Not only does tracking provide a baseline for making improvements, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that it better motivates performance improvements.

According to information from the EPA, “In a recent study, EPA found that buildings that were benchmarked consistently reduced energy use by an average of 2.4 percent per year, for a total savings of 7 percent. And, buildings that started out as poor performers saved even more.”

The EPA’s Portfolio Manager program is one of several benchmarking tools that track building data in comparison to other projects. Among the most widely used programs, this free tool helps manage energy and water consumption of any building by tracking consumption data, cost information and operational use details. An added bonus: universities looking to use their energy initiatives as a selling point for student recruitment can point to public rankings.

Measurement and Verification

“Tracking is critical,” agrees John Onderdonk, director of sustainability programs for Caltech in Pasadena, California. “But,” he adds, “even more critical than tracking is measurement and verification.”

Bruce Nevel, associate vice president, Facilities Development and Management, for Arizona State University, says that simple metering is a basic necessity for tracking energy use. “You must start with the basic premise that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it,” Nevel says.

He explains, “Meters should communicate to a central database so that energy use can be monitored and analyzed.”

While metering helps organizations to monitor, control and manage energy usage by collecting detailed information about building operations, some institutions look to delve deeper. Submeters can provide information about individuals departments or pieces of equipment to show how upgrades are impacting overall energy usage.

Through submetering installed in all of the university’s projects, Caltech is able to verify savings from the school’s lighting, HVAC and other energy upgrades. It also allows Onderdonk’s team to tie the dollar spent to the kilowatt used and then pay those savings back through the school’s financial utility budget.

Nevel notes that submetering is the next step for ASU as well.

“We realize we must continue to improve in order to meet our goals, so we are determining what additional meters would provide the most bang for our buck and better ways to analyze our data. Submetering loads within buildings is the next step in managing energy and it can be done efficiently on new construction projects where the circuits are designed to minimize the quantity of submeters required,” he says.

To date, ASU has a few buildings that use some level of submetering, but Nevel believes that, for the right applications, this can be a great tool to manage energy. He finds that being able to identify energy distribution at a system level can help when assessing reasons a building’s energy use has increased.

“In addition, submetering can lead to accountability, which can be essential to promote behavioral changes,” Nevel says.

Inspiring Change

To promote those behavioral changes, ASU has developed an energy information system that collects metered data, such as chilled water, steam and electricity usage, then analyzes the data and provides it to the general public through its Campus Metabolism application.

Any staff member, student or visitor can visit the public website and see data for virtually all of the buildings on the ASU campuses.

“In addition to giving you near-real-time data every 15 minutes, it gives historical data so you can see what you were consuming a week ago or this time last year. As changes are made you can see the impact of those changes,” Nevel says.

He adds, “The other neat feature on the site is our ‘virtual room’ where you can see a virtual dorm, lab and office, and all of the different appliances and energy users in those virtual areas. You can turn things on or off, or you can change the set points, leave the refrigerator open, or turn your air conditioner on to 68 degrees 24 hours a day, and then see what happens to the electric bill as you play with those [factors]. It’s another tool for giving folks a better appreciation for the impact their behavior has on energy consumption.”

In the end, tracking data is the first step toward changing usage. Whether that change comes from behavioral differences or equipment upgrades depends on the institution’s goals — and available budget.

Topics: Higher Education

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