Seattle, Microsoft Target Energy Savings for Buildings in Pilot Project

The operators of four Seattle buildings hope new data-gathering and analysis software, based on Microsoft’s cloud computing platform and being tested in a city pilot project, will help identify significant energy savings opportunities.

The city is running the High-Performance Buildings Pilot Project as part of a long-term effort to advance the cleantech industry locally. A planning process that began in 2010 “suggested that Seattle’s play in clean technology really was the convergence of our deep legacy in conservation and energy efficiency and software and IT,” says Brian Surratt, deputy director of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development.

“This is a huge potential export opportunity,” he says. “If we can demonstrate that IT-enabled energy efficiency services can perform well in this environment—a low-cost environment, with a deep history in green building—and if we can export that to other markets whether they’re in China, or to California, or to Texas, that has huge economic value to the city.”

This pilot project was developed to address two main barriers to adoption of IT-enabled energy efficiency: The need to show building owners lots of proof that a new technology does what its backers say it will, and the challenge of integrating new smart-buildings technology into the already complex “system of systems”—including lighting, heating and cooling, and access controls—that make up large commercial structures.

Four buildings, totaling just over 2 million square feet, are participating: the city’s downtown Municipal Tower, a University of Washington School of Medicine research lab in South Lake Union, the Sheraton Hotel Seattle, and a Boeing warehouse on East Marginal Way.

The buildings are all part of Seattle’s 2030 District, a nonprofit organization with the goal of reducing downtown buildings’ energy and water use, and emissions from transportation, by 50 percent from national averages by 2030. The 2030 District, organized in 2011, helps building owners and operators sift through the growing array of products and services touting efficiency improvements.

“We have a number of large, sophisticated buildings with large owners that are already performing pretty well… but they’re trying to get to the next level of performance,” 2030 District executive director Brian Geller says, noting that the sort of technology being used in this pilot is “not applicable to all buildings.”

Accenture, the IT consulting giant and Microsoft partner, is orchestrating the technology deployment. It is connecting existing building management systems, energy meters, sensors, and some individual pieces of equipment to capture real-time data, which will be aggregated—along with utility and weather data—stored on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, and analyzed using software from Ezenics.

“You’re not doing any physical retrofits,” says Microsoft’s Bill Mitchel, who is leading the partnership with the city. “What you’re actually doing is aggregating and analyzing data… From that analysis, you are able to drive a prescriptive approach to managing the energy efficiency in that building.”

For example, the data analysis may reveal a pattern of faults in a particular piece of cooling equipment, indicating it is out of tune or about to fail. Building managers could prioritize maintenance of that equipment.

“The transformation here is, instead of taking a serial approach to maintaining the systems in a building, you prioritize the maintenance based on where the most money is being wasted,” Mitchel says.

The data—presented through a dashboard that can be configured for executives or hands-on building managers—could also detect patterns of faults or underperformance of a particular piece of equipment across a portfolio of buildings, giving them information to back a warranty claim against a manufacturer.

The analysis can also reveal where human oversights are leading to wasted energy. Large exhaust fans were turned on in a Microsoft parking garage to clear up odors stemming from a ruptured sewer pipe. But they were never turned off, Mitchel says, until the company deployed a similar technology on its campus that detected the anomaly. The Redmond campus energy efficiency effort—described as “Internet of Things meets Big Data”—has served as a template for the Seattle pilot project, Mitchel says.

The city secured a $300,000 grant from the Department of Energy in 2011, funds that will cover startup costs for the participating buildings for three to six months, Geller says. After that, the building owners will pay a subscription fee for the service, with prices varying depending on the building size and complexity of systems, Geller says. He estimates it will be a few thousand dollars a month for larger projects.

Participants are anticipating 10 to 25 percent energy savings, and a return on investment in under two years, says Surratt, in the economic development office. He adds that the city intends to publicize the results of the project, good or bad.

“We’re hoping that other property owners see that there’s tremendous value in adopting some of these technologies” even without incentives, Surratt says, adding that IT-based approaches to energy efficiency compare favorably to capital-intensive physical retrofits.

A month ago, the city unveiled another pilot project designed to reinvent the business model for financing major energy efficiency upgrades, which often take longer to deliver an investment return than building owners are willing to accept.

Surratt also wants to find ways to assist the startup companies in the Seattle area at work on other aspects of IT-enabled energy efficiency. These include Verdiem, which makes software to manage IT equipment within businesses; Optimum Energy, maker of software for optimizing large-building HVAC equipment; and Powerit Solutions, which focuses on energy demand response for industrial facilities.

The barriers the city is trying to remove with this project “are very real,” Geller says, “because building owners are inherently conservative.”

They are hesitant to deploy new technology without seeing examples from local buildings similar to their own, he adds.

“Most building owners would love to be the second person to try something. Not that many of them really want to be the first,” he says.

While the Azure platform is certainly proven, Mitchel calls this pilot the first project of its kind to deploy the data analysis and fault detection technology in large commercial buildings beyond the Microsoft campus. Microsoft, through its CityNext initiative, is trying to win more business from municipal governments by providing a cloud platform to host similar data-driven approaches to health and social services, transportation, tourism, public safety, and education, Mitchel says.

As this sort of data gathering and analysis is deployed across more buildings, it could open other possibilities for utilities to better forecast and manage energy demand.

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