What Utilities Can Gain from Benchmarking

August 12, 2014 | Katie Weeks

Last month, Cambridge, Mass. became the latest city in the U.S. to pass a building energy usage benchmarking and disclosure ordinance. Under this type of legislation—which often requires property owners to track and submit information on their energy or water consumption over time—a growing number of cities and states (plus one county, so far) are unlocking a wealth of data on how the buildings in their cities are performing.

This is great news, as the opportunities that arise from this data and its public disclosure are vast. As this performance data is tracked, disclosed, and analyzed, building owners can see how their buildings are performing over time, against a norm, or to a group of peers, with an eye on potential improvements that may boost performance. It allows design and construction teams to see if the buildings they have created are living up to performance expectations. Tenants and potential tenants can better evaluate prospective new homes by studying performance data and learning more about what may constitute an efficient building.

Utilities and energy efficiency program administrators, however, have yet to fully capitalize on this growing pool of benchmarking data. Now, we're not talking about the benefits of smart-grid and real-time data here—those have received a lot of attention. It's the potential of whole-building data that is ripe for utilities to better use as a multi-faceted tool. Digging into this, IMT Senior Program Associate Andrea Krukowski recently wrote "Creating Value in Energy Efficiency: A Utility Perspective," which shines a light on how innovative energy service providers are leveraging benchmarking programs and policies to drive cost-effective energy savings and advance energy efficiency program planning and implementation.

Driving utility engagement in benchmarking programs doesn't just benefit energy service providers. Utilities can play a critical role in supporting these programs as a whole—the more access that a building owner has to whole-building data, the more effectively she or he can manage the building's energy. Half of all energy efficiency savings can be achieved through operational improvements at little or no cost to building owners, but the owners must first have access to building performance data. Many building owners, however, cannot easily get this information—especially those owners with separately metered buildings that require the consent of individual tenants.

Proactive utilities, however, have helped reduce data access challenges by setting up programs through which building owners can directly request whole-building data from the utilities, or by creating mechanisms that upload building performance data directly to benchmarking tools such as the EPA's Portfolio Manager program (the most commonly used tool for aggregating usage data). Could this improved access translate to better customer service? Could helping building owners benchmark their buildings then motivate utility customers to enroll in energy efficiency programs? These are two of several possibilities Andrea raises in her paper, which is an interesting read for all parties affected by benchmarking programs.

Through small case studies and across-the-field analysis, Andrea looks into how benchmarking data can make utilities smarter and more efficient in targeting programs and projects, how it can help utilities target and prioritize buildings for energy efficiency improvements, how better access to data can drive forward-thinking pilot programs that can take over once low-hanging fruit is picked, and how this data can be leveraged at several levels of scale.

If you're interested in learning more, you can download the full paper for free, and if you want to track benchmarking developments across the country, check out BuildingRating.org.

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