Retroficiency: Thermostat Tweaks in Big Buildings Can Save Millions

The next time you’re fighting with someone at work about the office temperature, you might have a holier-than-thou trump card.

A new analysis from Retroficiency, a developer of energy efficiency software, predicts that changes in building temperature as small as one degree could save millions of dollars in urban energy costs per year.

That insight is one of several that surfaced in a recent examination of commercial real estate in New York City, part of a broader data-analysis effort that Boston-based Retroficiency is calling the Building Genome Project.

By marrying publicly available data about building design and energy use with its in-house analytics, the company says it hopes to identify big opportunities for efficiency savings in the largest cities around the country.

“We want the genome to be an open project,” CEO Bennett Fisher said. “We absolutely encourage others to provide their input on what cities we should do next, what other energy efficiency scenarios we should model, and any other data that can help us to make this project more inclusive and more useful.”

In its analysis of more than 30,000 commercial buildings in New York, Retroficiency says it found that small, seasonal changes in building temperatures could save $145 million, or about 2 percent of the energy consumed across the entire group being studied.

Retro Graph 1

More disruptive changes could save more. Replacing all of the inefficient windows in New York office buildings could save $227 million in energy costs, or about 4.5 percent of the energy use across the 30,000 buildings studied, Retroficiency said.

Retroficiency Graphic 2

That may be more trouble than it’s worth in some cases, however. Retroficiency said many of the zip codes with the most potential for updated windows are located among the glittering towers of Manhattan—where a huge retrofitting project would cause a lot of disturbance. And in some cases, the company reports, “a full building window retrofit … may not yield attractive paybacks for a specific building.”

One factor that helped Retroficiency in New York was a city law that requires commercial buildings of 50,000 square feet or more to report their annual energy use. The law, enacted in 2009, captures data from office towers and condo or apartment buildings.

Also included in the analysis were building specifications from local government land records, which can give a detailed picture of the shape of a building and what it’s made of—including lighting, heating systems, and the type of windows.

Retroficiency said it also added weather data from a private-sector supplier, and the company’s own algorithms developed with data from “tens of thousands of previous audits.” That’s also the basis for Retroficiency’s commercial products, which are sold to utilities and other energy service providers.

Of course, spreading the word about energy savings opportunities in big cities could be good for Retroficiency’s bottom line. But the company’s analysis also serves as an argument for more widely available government energy and building data, which Retroficiency says could “enable the efficiency market to reach its full potential.”

Fisher noted that Boston is implementing its own large-building energy use reporting system this year, covering data from 2013, and other cities are considering similar steps.

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