Saving Energy in Boston: What the City’s ‘DNA’ Reveals

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Saving energy in Boston — or any other city — is less mysterious if you understand the overall DNA of its buildings, markers that show how they use electricity and heat.

That’s the idea behind Retroficiency’s Building Genome Project, which today released a DNA mapping of 16,800 commercial buildings in Boston.

What’s fascinating — and controversial — is how Retroficiency does the modeling.  Within just a few days the data analysis company was able to capture the energy profile of the massive building fleet, which uses about $1 billion in energy annually. The project identified nearly $50 million in potential energy savings through lighting, heating and behavior changes.

Retroficiency did this with readily accessible f information about the buildings, data found in public tax records. It coupled the data with statistical inference algorithms based on tens of thousands of previous audits.

Energy auditors criticize the practice, saying you can’t really get down to the bones of the building — what damper on what floor is failing to close properly, for example — without a physical audit.

But Retroficiency says the genome project’s purpose is different than that of a conventional audit. The company is trying to show cities how they can make large-scale change quickly to their entire energy portfolio.

A city like Boston cannot achieve its aggressive environmental goals with building-by-building audits alone, which would take decades. Boston has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

“This information is intended to accelerate a shift in how industry — including utilities, energy service providers and building owners — and policy leaders approach the world’s energy efficiency challenge,” said Retroficiency in a case study released today.

Boston was rated number one among 34 major cities in the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy’s scorecard. So what more can it do to improve the energy performance of its building stock?

Boston also plans to use microgrids to achieve its greenhouse gas reductions. See more here.

Retroficiency found that saving energy in Boston through three changes could cut energy bills $49 million annually. The changes would reduce overall energy use by about 6 percent  across Boston’s commercial building portfolio and help the city reach 24 percent of its remaining GHG emission reduction goal.

Here are the specifics.

Save $27 million and cut energy use 3.2 percent (MMBtu) with advanced lighting controls in every large hotel, retail, and office building. Carbon savings would be 81,368 metric tons, the same as taking 17,287 passenger vehicles off the road

Save $20 million and cut energy 2.1 percent (MMBtu) by turning the thermostat up one degree in the summer and down 1 degree in the winter.  Carbon savings would be 81,017 metric tons, the same as taking 17,212 passenger vehicles off the road

Save  $2 million and cut energy use  0.3 percent (MMBtu) by instituting a half-day Fridays during the summer in office buildings. Carbon savings would be 7,054 metric tons, the same as  taking  1,499 passenger vehicles off the road.

Boston was the second city analyzed by the Building Genome Project; the first was New York earlier this year.  (See Energy Efficiency Markets, Green Cities: It’s All in the DNA.)


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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Vidyadhar Joshi says:

    The efforts are appreciated. However looking at the savings looks like a lot is missing or not calculated. The big buildings and their architecture has a lot of effect on the consumption of electricity. The main power consumption in these buildings is Air conditioning and lighting. I am sure that using LEDs for lighting and using A/C effectively should make a huge difference.
    Products like Sola-tube (a roof top device, designed to birng Sun light in the building) can make a lot of difference.
    Solar panels and LEDs on many public places should be considered. (where there is enough Solar exposure).
    I have seen in tall buildings that for security reasons all the doors are closed causing restrictions to the flow of air. Tall buildings can use the Chimney effect (air automatically flows from bottom to top) to reduce the A/C load.
    There are LEDs available to fit in the existing fixtures.

  2. Kedarnath Rao Ghorpade says:

    Informative and interesting concept for city management. I am Urban Planner from Mumbai engaged in researching ‘Urban Land use Transformations and Changes in Patterns of Conventional Energy Consumption’. The case study is Vashi: Navi Mumbai. I would be keen to know more about your research and seek associationship in the Navi Mumbai study.


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