Automated Energy Benchmarking: A New Solution for Businesses in Utah

June 29, 2016 | Kevin Emerson

Salt Lake City is one of 19 cities that participated in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Data Accelerator initiative, which tasked local governments to collaborate with their utilities to provide businesses with a whole-building, automated energy benchmarking program. The goal was to find a way to connect businesses’ utility accounts with building energy databases such as the nation’s most popular (and free) ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager®.

Salt Lake City and its partners were recognized by the White House and the U.S. Department of Energy in January of 2016 for being among a small handful of municipal-utility partners to create an automated program in the two-year project timeline. Most importantly, the program was a success.  Here’s an account of what happened.

First, what is automated benchmarking?

Whole-building, automated benchmarking drives energy efficiency and energy savings by giving building energy managers regular, updated information about their building’s energy performance and how it compares to similar buildings. Benchmarking also helps target which buildings will most effectively save energy, money, and ultimately reduce pollution.

In Utah, it’s driving greater awareness of energy efficiency opportunities and encouraging building managers to improve the energy efficiency of their commercial buildings.

Who Were the Partners in the Program?

In 2013, Salt Lake City and electric utility, Rocky Mountain Power, teamed up to explore how to develop the program.  Questar Gas joined the initiative in 2014. The group leveraged the expertise of Utah Clean Energy, a Salt Lake City-based non-profit group that specializes in energy efficiency solutions (and is a partner of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project). To date, Rocky Mountain Power has delivered a successful, automated benchmarking tool, and Questar Gas is expected to follow suit in late 2016 or early 2017.

The Partners Wanted to Save Energy and Reduce Air Pollution

Throughout the “Wasatch Front” where Salt Lake City and the majority of Utah’s other metro areas are located, energy that’s wasted in building heating, cooling, lighting and other ways is a recognized contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution.  State and local leaders recognized that upgrading commercial buildings to save energy would be cost-effective, save money on utility bills, use the state’s energy resources wisely, and reduce emissions. The problem, however, was compiling utility energy data so that inefficient buildings could be identified and subsequent upgrades quantified for energy savings.  It was an onerous and time-consuming process, requiring energy managers to search through past utility statements one at a time and manually enter utility data into a database. These issues were compounded in buildings with multiple tenants or for managers overseeing multiple buildings. Long story short, because of the significant amount of time and effort required to manual enter utility data, successfully benchmarking buildings has been a challenge.  An automated tool was needed.

Collaboration Was The Key to Success

To design a successful tool, collaboration was king. With assistance from Utah Clean Energy, Salt Lake City’s Department of Sustainability convened several meetings with Rocky Mountain Power and commercial and institutional building stakeholders to outline what a whole-building automated energy data solution should look like. In the first meetings, the partners named several obstacles, including concerns about utility customer privacy, the cost of creating the tool, and affirming the tool’s value to utility customers.

Salt Lake City used several strategies to overcome each of these obstacles. To address privacy concerns, the city convened representatives from the healthcare, education and building owner sectors and gathered their feedback about how their utility could provide whole-building aggregated data to their building energy managers while ensuring that the energy use data for each tenant would remain anonymous. The goal was to ensure sufficient anonymity when there were less than five tenants in the building.  The utilities and building stakeholders were comfortable with an aggregated threshold of five or more tenants. This meant that if a commercial building has five or more tenants then the utilities could aggregate data from multiple building meters without requiring consent from each tenant. However, consent from each tenant would be required in buildings with four or fewer tenants.

To deal with cost concerns, Salt Lake City facilitated several consultations between Rocky Mountain Power staff and other utilities from across the nation that already had deployed automated energy data services. Rocky Mountain Power discovered that automated benchmarking solutions could be developed cost-effectively.  Ultimately, the utility hired a third-party vendor to develop the benchmarking solution that met their service and budget constraints.

Finally, to demonstrate market demand for an automated energy benchmarking program, Salt Lake City introduced the concept of an automated energy tool to groups representing building managers and promoted this as an opportunity to simplify the benchmarking process. As a result, groups such as Building Owners and Managers Association of Utah submitted supportive letters and comments to Rocky Mountain Power and Questar Gas.

Rocky Mountain Power Launched the Benchmarking Tool in 2015

In autumn of 2015, Rocky Mountain Power launched the automated benchmarking tool. This tool, built upon the utility’s existing Resource Advisor program, allows a building representative to connect meters in their buildings to the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager® and automatically upload electricity data on a monthly basis. As of June 2016, 88 buildings in Utah had enrolled in the program.

Following Rocky Mountain Power’s launch, Questar Gas in May of 2016 followed suit and issued a Request For Information notice to select a third-party vendor to develop a automated benchmarking program for General Service business customers. Implementation is slated to begin in the third quarter of 2016.

Benchmarking Fuels Greater Awareness of Opportunities to Save Energy

Automated energy benchmarking allows building owners and facility managers in Utah to compile and review data using much less staff time and effort. This innovation is having positive ripple effects beyond Rocky Mountain Power customers and Salt Lake City. As a result of this successful project, Rocky Mountain Powers business customers across the state of Utah and in Wyoming and Idaho also have access to this automated benchmarking tool, and so do commercial customers of Pacific Power (Rocky Mountain Power’s sister company) in Oregon, Washington, and California.

Kevin Emerson MSc, LEED GA, is Senior Policy and Regulatory Associate for Utah Clean Energy, where he leads energy efficiency programs, partnerships, and a variety of policy and regulatory activities.