Benchmarking: Shooting hoops for energy efficiency

Benchmarking sounds a little like being the sixth man on basketball team.

You're not in the starting lineup, but you're good enough to provide the spark off the bench. The player who can make a difference down the stretch. There's Ricky Pierce, a Seattle Supersonic and two-time NBA sixth man, or -- to get more current -- Dion Waiters from Syracuse or Michael Dixon of Missouri.

But the kind of benchmarking I'm describing has none of the former's run-and-gun offense. In fact, it's downright dull. No points are scored here. A smothering defense keeps the excitement quite low.

Managing energy use

However, the practice of recording energy data, tracking changes and producing reports reflecting those alterations has become extremely popular in the past several years.

"We've had exponential growth," says one official on a recent webinar explaining the latest in data benchmarking.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started its Portfolio Manager program in 1999, signing just a few buildings that first year. Since then, it's grown to about 300,000 buildings, and the rate of expansion is expected to continue.

What's cool really isn't the data entry part. That is mind-numbing. No bones about it. The interesting aspect comes after the data, or energy-qualifying benchmarks, have been established. It's at that point the building owner knows just how much he/she/it pays every month and can view the seasonal fluctuations.

Retrofits make the difference

The sexy part is adding new stuff, when the building owner adds energy efficient lighting, installs extra insulation, replaces windows, adds a heat-reflecting cool roof, swaps out an old rickety AC unit for a super-efficient SEER 15 or installs occupancy sensors.

For larger buildings, savings also can come from installing a sophisticated building information management system that monitors temperature, water consumption, occupancy, air flow and electricity use room by room. Metering also works in industrial applications, and companies have reported full retrofit paybacks in less than a year and utility savings of 20 percent or more on their bills.

And tracking those savings on Portfolio Manager is when the proverbial light bulb in the head goes off. Of course, it's an LED bulb in this case.

Tracking changes

I track such changes from PG&E, which has attached a smart meter to my house. I've done a number of things to my 52-year-old home to make it better than average. I still have a way to go, but the personal payback is when I read a letter from the utility stating, "You have saved 13 percent this quarter over the year before."

Portfolio Manager operates essentially the same way.

Its features allow the user to group buildings, view average ratings across a group, control access to building data and generate reports to brag to shareholders or partners and business associates just how much money has been saved. The great thing about an energy efficiency retrofit is that once it earns its money back, the future savings are nothing but gravy.

Energy Star

EPA enables top-performing buildings to earn the Energy Star rating, with organizations and building portfolios that show a 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent and more level of savings able to qualify for Energy Star Leader recognition.

That's good for a company interested in winning points with customers or a city wanting to save money in this budget-busting economy.

We're no stranger to the benchmarking concept at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization. However, this is my first foray into actually using the site. I'm thinking in between populating the various data fields like building age, square footage, how many PCs, how many workers, hours of use and percentage of building air conditioned, a good distraction would be a nearby basketball hoop.

Best laid plans

However, today's temp of 109 or 110 makes that sound a little daunting. Still, I'd prefer it as a momentary distraction to four hours straight of keyboarding energy data. I would say I have a co-worker who loves benchmarking more than anything, but I'd be lying.

Regardless, this is good stuff.

And while it does take money to make money, there are a number of programs building owners can access. Utilities may provide on-bill financing programs to reduce kilowatt hour energy use.

Milton Bevington, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts and member of the Cambridge Climate Protection Action Committee, says in a piece that municipalities have other methods of raising money.

"Virtually any essential-use energy efficiency project can be financed using a municipal lease, usually at a cost comparable to bonding," he says, adding that premiums are offset by lower transaction costs and payment terms.

Mandating monitoring

The practice convinced leaders of Philadelphia to mandate energy benchmarking for commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet, and Katherine Tweed of reports the city is one of a growing list. And she says there's help. Companies are lining up to do the work.

So benchmark. You're in good company. Although my mind drifts back to Dennis Johnson when he was drafted in the second round by the Supersonics and tore up the back court with Gus Williams and Downtown Freddie Brown before winning it all with Larry Bird in Boston.

Now that's off the bench. RIP DJ.