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Opinion:

Bringing Utilities into the Now

If utility companies standardized how they report data, software tools could easily provide a user-friendly interface to track building performance.

By Michael Murray
January 2012

The last decade has seen substantial progress in green building, but recently I've been acutely aware of a persistent, frustrating, nagging obstacle to energy and resource conservation in commercial buildings. The obstacle is partly technological, but mostly regulatory. It involves the utility companies.

If utilities partnered with technology, a device like the iPhone could report real-time building usage.
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The information captured by utilities—how much electricity, water, or natural gas our buildings consume and when—is essential to improving efficiency. Energy benchmarking, monitoring-based commissioning, demand response, and performance contracting all depend upon data which utilities don't make readily available. When we want electronic access, they provide inscrutable paper bills. When we want 15-minute intervals, they provide monthly totals. When we want to benchmark our building in EnergyStar, we have to assemble a year of billing history and manually enter the information into energystar.gov. This is inconvenient, costly, and an obstacle to progress. Resigned to utilities' inflexibility, most large facility owners purchase monitoring equipment to duplicate the information and feed it into energy management systems. Of the 3,273 traditional electric utilities in the United States, very few provide consumption data in a convenient, electronic format. The time has come to change this practice.

The utility industry is not known for its agility, but internet-based companies are. When public transit agencies began publishing bus and train locations on the Internet through an Application Programming Interface (API), dozens of applications were created to help riders plan their trips. The best iPhone apps were not created by the transit agencies themselves, but by innovative software developers who repackaged the underlying data made available electronically.

This is the 21st century. Where's our energy API? When a building owner wants to ask simple questions like, How much energy do I use? Am I wasting energy, given climate and occupancy patterns? How does my building compare to others?—getting answers can be tedious and costly. However, answers could be instantly provided with software if the underlying data were available in a standard format. By bringing Internet technologies to utilities, the wealth of creativity in the software industry could be applied to optimizing building performance; energy assessments could be brought to small- and medium-sized facilities; and energy-efficiency measures could go deeper, by virtue of dramatically reduced initial evaluation costs.

The energy API exists, but regulators haven't yet required it. The National Institute of Standards and Technology's Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) led to the creation of Open Automated Data Exchange (OpenADE), an Internet communication standard allowing utility customers to automatically transmit consumption and billing histories to third parties of their choosing. If mandated by regulatory bodies, OpenADE could spawn a new energy-data analysis industry. Imagine a $1.99 iPhone application: You enter your building information and meter ID from your utility bill and instantly receive your entire history and energy assessment on your smartphone.

A few regulators have taken steps in this direction, but more momentum is needed. Contact your regulators and tell them you want utilities to enter the Internet age. It's about time.

Michael Murray, CEO of Lucid Design Group Inc, is passionate about bringing energy information online.

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