Better Building Challenge Helps Los Angeles Track Energy Use

Even big cities like L.A. don't have the capacity to collect energy data in a timely fashion. But a federal program helps the city’s building owners measure consumption.
July 23, 2013

Los Angeles wants to slash energy consumption by 20 percent across 30 million square feet of commercial structures by 2020. But acquiring power usage data from all the buildings to evaluate progress hasn’t been an easy task for city officials.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) doesn’t have the capability to transmit its data in an automated fashion, which impedes the timely collection and aggregation of the usage data, according to Dave Hodgins, executive director of the Los Angeles Better Building Challenge (LABBC).

To solve that problem, LABBC has the task of extracting the energy consumption data from dozens of buildings for evaluation and monitoring. LABBC is part of an initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings, from retrofitting city-owned facilities and affordable housing units, to working with the private sector to finance energy and water efficiency upgrades in commercial buildings.

Launched by President Obama in 2011, the Better Building Challenge is aimed at improving how the country uses the $200 billion it spends annually on energy for buildings. On average, 30 percent of the energy is wasted. U.S. manufacturing plants spend an additional $180 billion annually on energy.

Backed by grants from the Energy Department, nearly 50 communities as well as state and local governments, including L.A., have partnered with the challenge, committing to report publicly on energy consumption from public and private buildings every six months, with the goal of developing a model that achieves energy savings.

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LABBC decided to use data acquisition analytics software to help cull energy use directly from power bills. The computer program, known as WegoWise, is an application that uses the login and password from each building owner’s LADWP account to download a pdf document of their power bills, pulling the data and converting it into digital format. The information is automatically transferred into Portfolio Manager, an online energy management tool that enables a user to track and assess resource consumption across an entire community of structures. Ultimately, the technology will help LABBC evaluate progress towards its goal of achieving the 20 percent energy reduction.

WegoWise uses digital charts and graphs to summarize energy usage, giving users a more eye-friendly format than traditional spreadsheets. The Web-based tool is free to use for LABBC participants.

“We offer WegoWise as essentially a value-add to buildings that participate in the program,” Hodgins said. “The idea being that it helps save them time and hassle of putting their building and consumption data manually into Portfolio Manager. That’s the main thing for us.”

Building owners that participate in the Challenge aren’t required to use WegoWise. Hodgins explained that some buildings already have expansive building management or data collection systems installed, so switching over wouldn’t make sense financially. He said the goal is to create value, not additional work.

Craig Isakow, director of commercial solutions at WegoWise, Inc., added that collecting and aggregating the data would be a lot easier if the format was standardized across all utility companies in the U.S. The Green Button Initiative is one such standardization effort. It is an industry-led campaign that responded to a White House call-to-action to provide utility customers with easy and secure access to their energy usage information. But Green Button hasn’t made inroads yet.

“It’s surprising how much of a barrier it is taking the paper bills and typing them into a computer,” Isakow said. “You wouldn’t think that would be a big deal. But converting that paper to digital is what we’re doing automatically and it saves people a lot of time.”

Looking Ahead

The WegoWise system hasn’t been online for long. As of early July, of the 100 buildings that are a part of the LABBC, 40 municipal and 10 multi-family affordable housing buildings were connected to the system.

The LABBC doesn’t have much in the way of tangible results yet, mostly due to anomalies present in the data. Hodgins said utilities generally only provide building data for the shell of a structure, including the basic structure, roof and façade, stairways and lobbies. The actual residential spaces are often left out of the square footage because those areas are customized by the eventual building owner.

LABBC is correcting some of the data so that it accurately contains the exact size of structures. Once all the corrections have been made, Portfolio Manager will serve as the repository for all the energy use data being reported by the buildings.

The LABBC has a master account for the energy data and each of the participating owners share their individual accounts with the LABBC so everything can be seen in one place. Energy data from the master account is then shared with the U.S. DOE, which views it in aggregate, rather than individually to maintain anonymity.

Keeping energy use anonymous was important to building owners, according to Hodgins.

“There are groups like Honest Buildings [a network of commercial real estate professionals and buildings] that are trying to make the market more transparent in that regard, but I think it’s not something that the real estate industry is going to do willingly,” Hodgins said. “When and if that happens, I think it’ll be driven by legislation. I don’t see that happening any other way.”

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