Do you need a retrofit to cut building energy use? Microsoft says maybe not

Technology giant suggests by deploying smart building solutions that cost roughly 10 percent of average annual energy budget, businesses could see an energy savings payback within 18 months.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Conventional wisdom suggests that companies need to update the building systems and facilities technologies within their real-estate portfolios in order to cut energy consumption and, by extension, energy costs. But Microsoft has published the results of its own campus energy-efficiency pilot, and it suggests that companies can realize annual energy savings of 10 percent to 30 percent by using information technology to get smarter about energy usage -- without necessarily needing a massive retrofit.

The white paper, which Microsoft published in conjunction with its energy-efficiency project partner Accenture, suggests that smarter building solutions can generally be deployed for an investment of approximately 10 percent of a company's typical electricity budget. That investment could pay for itself within 18 months in the form of energy savings of 10 percent to 30 percent, according to the company's white paper and corresponding blog post.

The technology works by doing the following, according to the white paper:

  • Alerting building managers when something has gone wrong with building equipment that might be wasting energy or causing systems to work harder than they should be working
  • Prioritizing alarms and alerts
  • Pulling in information about external conditions, such as weather utility pricing information, so that energy consumption and lighting usage can be adjusted as appropriate

The pilot program that was run by the Microsoft Real Estate & Facilities team focused on 13 buildings across the company's 118-building campus in Redmond, Wash. (The space under management was 2.6 million square feet, which is about the same floor space as in New York's Empire State Building.) The buildings were all different ages: from almost new to 20 years old. There were three different smart building applications at the center of the test, which was rolled out during the first half of 2011. Overall, the buildings under test include 30,000 pieces of mechanical equipment that needed to be maintained. Average daily consumption in the buildings was 2 million kilowatt-hours of energy, the companies reported.

Fundamentally, Accenture and Microsoft said the following factors were instrumental in positive results from this pilot:

  • The ability to identify, collect and aggregate the data that mattered
  • Analytics capabilities
  • Visualization capabilities that presented information in an easy-to-understand format
  • Centralized monitoring that looked at multiple sites
  • Engagement of employees and facilites managers (this was not done in a vacuum)
  • Working with what was already in place (so, the program wasn't too disruptive)

The white paper reports that the pilot was able to quantify wasted energy that came as a result of mechanical programs. Because of the sheer size of the Microsoft campus, the company was tuning some of its heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems maybe one every five years. The savings that Microsoft thinks it can achieve by tuning the buildings on a continuous basis (rather than through the prior intermittent approach) could be worth more than $1 million in annual energy cost savings, Accenture and Microsoft estimate.

In the final analysis, Accenture and Microsoft report that the success of a smart building solution is directly dependent on the analytics technologies and capabilities that are used.

The authors write:

"Algorithms that detect faults, prioritize alarms and identify optimization opportunities amid vast amounts of data enable building engineers to unlock savings that are not addressable with traditional methods. Rules need to be customized by vendor resources or by building engineers that are familiar with the software."

That suggests the facilities managers will need new skills in order to pull off savings of the sort that Microsoft expects to achieves. So, even though solutions like this aren't meant to be disruptive to building occupants, they will absolutely disrupt the status quo job expectations for those running and managing buildings.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards