Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

By Jim Fletcher, Distinguished Engineer and Chief Architect, Smarter Infrastructure, IBM

With gas once again flirting with $4 per gallon, imagine shopping for a car in a world where vehicles didn’t come with mileage ratings.

Sure, a smart driver would likely a gut feeling that the pint-sized Prius would be cheaper to fuel than the hulking Hummer for sale next to it. But without official data, or at least a Hummer driver willing to share mileage figures, it’d be tough to know for sure what it would cost to operate the two vastly different vehicles for years to come.

It sounds absurd. Yet for most buyers of houses, commercial buildings and other properties, that far-fetched scenario is pretty much the reality today. Buyers have precious little information of how much energy a given property will consume.

Yet while we’d roll our eyes at the owner of a super-sized SUV who seems surprised about high fill-up costs, who hasn’t heard a story of a person who bought a home only to discover later that it’s hugely expensive to heat and cool?

Luckily city planners, engineers and companies are recognizing that the vacuum of information about building performance is a key to boosting building efficiency, and improving real estate market information—better data helps owners and their tenants make smarter decisions.

An intriguing effort to make this sort of building performance data more transparent surfaced recently in New York City. It’s a map of the city’s five boroughs, color-coded to show the energy intensity of practically every building in the Big Apple’s dense mix of commercial, residential, and mixed-use regions.

The map renders energy consumption in a spectrum of colors: dense, energy-hungry midtown glows darkly red; while low-density, residential swaths of Queens are pale yellow. The design is a first, important step towards giving building owners a great sense of how their energy use compares with their neighbors.

Known as the New York City Energy Mapping Project, the map is the fruit of a study produced by the Modi Research Group at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. The work was jointly presented by co-author Vijay Modi, a professor of mechanical engineering, and lead-author Bianaca Howard, a PhD candidate, at the Northeast Clean Heat and Power Initiative conference in January.

“This map will enable New York City building owners to see whether their own building consumes more or less than what an average building with similar function and size would,” said Modi, quoted in The New York Times Green blog.

“Midtown Manhattan has more energy use than the whole country of Kenya, and New York State uses more energy than all of sub-Saharan Africa,” Modi told The Wall Street Journal.  “For the big expenses we pay for energy we don’t have any idea what we are paying for,” he added. “We get a bill from Conn Ed for let’s say $150, we don’t know how much of that is to run the refrigerator, the heating, the shower?”

To be clear, the visualization is not an exact snapshot of actual energy use. Rather, the researchers adapted data from the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability to build a statistical model that estimates yearly energy consumption for every “tax lot” in New York—a close approximation of each structure in the city, according to CNET.

The map shows energy intensity—energy consumed per square meter of each tax lot—in terms of both heat and electricity. Passing a mouse across the map, a user can interact with the map to reveal total annual building energy consumption.

Still, the New York City energy intensity map is a great start towards clearing the fog that obscures how and where energy is used by buildings.

YouTube Preview Image

As many commenters noted, the map’s next iteration should take the data one step further, revealing not just energy use by lot, but by square footage. This would add an important nuance, making it easier to distinguish energy users by efficiency.

For example, consider the Empire State Building. The 102-story tower would show up on the current map as a dark red block given its large total energy demand. But that obscures its superior efficiency. Having recently completed a $550-million retrofit, the building has cut its energy appetite by over a third. So today, King Kong’s tower runs using less energy and at lower costs than most buildings of its size.

The good news is that more detailed energy use data is becoming available. New York City has enacted groundbreaking new rules for buildings to benchmark their energy use.  Starting last year, the rules require private buildings of over 50,000 square feet to file their use of energy (and in some cases water) with the city where it will be posted in a public database.

As building performance data becomes more transparent, building owners are more likely to respond to price signals. Studies show that even with the incomplete information now available, more efficient buildings such as the Empire State Building, are attracting higher-paying tenants, and commanding higher occupancy rates and superior prices at resale. Strong market signals like these are likely to spur owners of less efficient buildings to invest in upgrades; banks are more likely to finance those upgrades if there’s solid data to support the return on the investment..

There are likely to be second-order economic benefits that flow from efforts to map and compare building performance. Energy data analysis is a hotspot in software development, with big established software companies and small startups all spying the emerging pools of building performance data as an opportunity to build user-friendly applications.

In New York City in January, the Cleanweb Hackathon—a Silicon Valley-style weekend-long marathon of pizza-powered coding and venture capital courting—points to the potential. Many of the proposed business models and one of the winners (nycbldgs.com), Martin LaMonica notes at CNET, made use of public domain data to visualize energy consumption and spur competition between households, or buildings, to lower energy use.

New York is learning that the information really is power—in this case, the power to lower energy use. The city offers a great example of how, step-by-step, tools to understand energy use, and rules to encourage more transparent building energy information have the power to spur efficiency investment.

And, luckily, the lessons are catching on. The Institute for Market Analysis, a Washington (D.C.)-based advocate for green building policy, has been tracking the spread of these rules: a fast growing pack of other cities and states are developing and deploying unprecedented levels of performance disclosure.

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