FirstFuel: On-Site Audits and the Variability Challenge

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Domenic Armano, FirstFuel

Domenic Armano, FirstFuel

Back in July, FirstFuel provided some commentary on the challenges associated with energy analysis variability, and the potential impact on sizing, prioritizing, and investing in commercial efficiency opportunities. Highly respected journals such as ASHRAE and Energy Engineering Journal have recently raised this issue, while other organizations are taking steps to improve energy efficiency (EE) standardization protocols more broadly.

The energy analysis variability challenge, however, is seen most clearly through an early 2013 study from the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficient Buildings Hub (EEB Hub). The Hub brought three different on-site auditing firms to their temporary headquarters, the Navy Yard Building (also called Building 101), to determine the potential for energy reduction.  The three auditing teams arrived at distinctly different conclusions for how the building should be upgraded, as this graphic  depicts:EEB Hub DiagramGiven FirstFuel’s core focus on providing standardized and reliable energy performance intelligence to drive energy efficiency decisions, FirstFuel and EEB Hub paired up to conduct a follow-up initiative in September. The Hub provided FirstFuel with just three pieces of information – one year of 15 minute interval consumption data (electric), one year of monthly natural gas usage, and the Building 101 address. On the same day the data was received, FirstFuel conducted a detailed remote audit of the building using its Remote Building Analytics platform.

Through the analysis, FirstFuel found a 22% savings potential for electricity and a 15% savings potential for gas across eight efficiency measures. Total annual savings potential for both energy sources was $34,100, which equaled the highest total savings found by the three on-site audits. A few other findings from FirstFuel’s analysis included:

  • End-Use Comparisons: FirstFuel’s end-use disaggregation across lights, cooling, etc. compared very closely to Building 101 energy sub-meters, ranging from 1% to 5% in total difference.
  • Operational Savings: FirstFuel identified that EEB Hub’s HVAC equipment was running at significantly longer rates than needed throughout the year, indicating a significant savings opportunity. One of the on-site audits failed to uncover this HVAC-related operational savings potential.
  •  Consistency of Findings: Most of the remaining opportunities identified by FirstFuel – such as broader occupancy controls, upgrading heating system to condensing boilers, envelope weatherization, and heating piping and valve insulation – were in line with the findings of two or all three of the on-site audits.

Regarding the broader impact that remote energy analytics can have on commercial EE outcomes, FirstFuel and EEB Hub arrived at four conclusions based on the project:

1) Improving Analysis Standardization: While the on-site auditors used a wide range of tools to arrive at their conclusions, FirstFuel’s analysis results come from utilizing the same inputs, outputs, and analysis techniques for every building it analyzes. The overall process, therefore, is arguably more standardized, repeatable, and consistent than traditional approaches.

2) Leveraging Operational Savings (for RCx): FirstFuel’s analytics platform places an equal emphasis on operational savings (vs. retrofits), which not only helps uncover more savings in aggregate, but also overcome building owner/operator inaction since these opportunities often offer fast paybacks at a low upfront cost.

3) Prioritizing High Potential Buildings: Due to its cost and speed advantages, remote energy analytics have the potential to balance the trade-off between insight, accuracy and scale by helping utilities, cities, states, and portfolio managers prioritize which buildings they should target for energy efficiency (and which they should pass over).

4) Complementing Deeper On-Site Audits: In addition to providing a replacement option for traditional methods, remote energy analytics can supplement deeper on-site activities. Investment grade audits conducted to size deep retrofits, for example, could significantly benefit from remote analytics as a useful, accurate starting point.

Standardized and reliable performance information has been critical to unlocking and scaling markets in almost every major sector, including financial services, retail and telecoms. Why should it be any different in energy efficiency?

Domenic Armano is the director of customer solutions at FirstFuel.

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