Just to be clear, I don’t think I’m personally smarter than a computer (and I definitely don’t want Skynet to think I said that), but the person who did was trying to make a point. I’m talking about the “Turn Data into Dollars” session from our recent E Source Energy Managers’ Roundtable, where the topic of building energy performance analytics was discussed by a panel of experts. And I must say, by the end of the session I was convinced that humans are smarter than computers.
The Dawn of Data is clearly upon us, and this session was designed to help energy managers make sense of the building energy analytics world. I’ve seen lists that included more than 200 vendors offering software products that claim to improve buildings’ energy use. One emerging trend is products attempting to replace traditional “boots on the ground” energy audits with analytical engines that crunch utility data and geographic information system (GIS) data while spitting out recommendations for energy conservation measures (ECMs). The topic is so hot that our own Jay Stein began his presentation by comparing energy auditors to the spotted owl, saying they shared one ominous commonality: They’re both endangered species. Whether or not that’s true is debatable, but the fact that it’s worthy of an entire conference session is notable.
This session primarily focused on two software packages: digital audit packages and human analysis tools. The former uses an analytical engine to perform energy audits based solely on utility data (typically the previous 12 months of usage) and GIS data, complete with ECM recommendations. The latter captures near-real-time data and provides building owners and maintenance staff a constant stream of usage data in the form of a load profile, as well as other load profile shapes (historical, baseline, optimal, etc.) depending on the package.
When I was first learning about these products, I couldn’t help but think “Why would I pay for software that still needs human eyes and brains?” The idea of skipping an audit and just inputting some data to get the same results is very appealing, no? The problem is, as with most things in life, it’s just not that simple. Sure you can take the shortcut and go with the digital audit, but you get what you pay for.
Gary Hogsett, representing global real estate service provider CB Richard Ellis, told us about his experience using a digital audit package. Long story short: it’s good, not great. CB Richard Ellis is one of the largest facility management companies in the world, so its staff don’t have the time or resources to set foot into every facility. Gary spoke about how great it was for his team to be able to turn around audits in one day using the tool—in fact, that’s the main value proposition that resonates with him. Being able to get a report to a customer with recommendations in 24 hours without ever setting foot in the building is invaluable.
However, the tool isn’t perfect. There’s no way to provide a 100 percent accurate audit report without ever seeing the building in question. Gary said he spends a lot of time reviewing reports before they go to customers, trying to catch any unfeasible or nonsensical recommendations. The problem with using minimal data is that the tool has to infer a lot about the building, and sometimes those inferences are wrong. Gary said something that I think sums up how he feels about digital audits: “Sure these packages are fast and create good-looking reports, but using a satellite photo to conduct an audit is still crazy.”
Lillian Zaremba from the University of British Columbia (UBC) followed Gary by discussing her experiences using a human analysis tool, and right away you could tell her story was different. UBC piloted its tool first and realized double-digit energy savings across several buildings, yielding a payback of less than three years; since then, the tool has been scaled to cover more than 60 buildings on campus. Lillian talked about how they use their analysis tool to establish baselines, verify persistent savings, and determine optimal performance. She then pulled up their actual tool dashboard and we saw how all 60-plus buildings were performing that day. I must say, my nerd mind was blown away.
I wasn’t that surprised by what Gary and Lillian had to say, but I think the message is important. We’re all so captivated by software packages that pull data behind the big green curtain and present us with sharp-looking reports and dashboards, but sometimes I think we just assume these tools are doing everything we could do and more. Like Gary said, it’s nice having something that can quickly produce reports with actionable items, but the real question is whether it can provide the same level of analysis and accuracy of recommendations that an experienced auditor or energy manager can. I think with the tools we have now, the answer to that is no. So although I may not be smarter than a computer, I’m pretty sure I was in a room full of people that are—and no one there should feel endangered.