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This Technology Could Cut Efficiency Audit Costs by 75%

Thursday, April 4, 2013   (0 Comments)
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New tools are providing clarity and convenience for energy auditors.
Although building energy efficiency is improving, the sector still falls
disappointingly short of meeting its full potential.
Even when a building owner or manager goes through the process of an
audit and retrofit, results can be inaccurate and inconsistent, especially
when compared across an entire portfolio. There are many reasons for this
shortfall, but it essentially comes down to two factors: people and tools.
The people factor is real; the diligence of the audit team and the skills of
the retrofit installers can change the results of an energy retrofit drastically.
But for now, let’s talk about the tools.
The toolkit of an energy auditor largely consists of technologies that have
been around for decades. Though effective in the right hands, blower
doors, thermographic cameras, etc. only provide a snapshot of the
efficiency of a building. The trouble with this is that it doesn’t help auditors
anticipate exactly what effect different energy conservation measures will
have on overall consumption. Instead, through experience and training,
auditors give an estimate of how much a retrofit will improve the building
efficiency, and then take another snapshot after the measures areinstalled. The hallmark of the growth of clean energy has been the
relentless improvement of technology, but can the same be said for energy
While it’s unlikely that there will be a revolution in blower doors any time
soon, energy modeling technology has made great strides in recent years.
Even the concept of "remote” energy audits has taken hold as a way to
provide energy reduction recommendations without the cost and time
involved in a walk-through energy audit. By using geographical information,
utility data, and basic building characteristics, these reports evaluate the
energy efficiency of a building and make recommendations without ever
setting foot inside. Some hailed the rise of remote energy modeling as the
solution to tedious walkthroughs and manual reports. Others reacted
skeptically to the idea that collecting a few pieces of information could
come close to substituting for a comprehensive audit. But there seems to
be middle ground emerging: the use of mobile devices and powerful
software to create complex energy models during the auditing process.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has led the effort,
enlisting the help of several disparate internal initiatives and the private
company concept3D to create a high-tech solution called simuwatt Audit.
This project integrates a cloud-based library of energy conservation data,
an established whole-building energy simulation engine, and advanced
building geometry capture software into a single tablet-based software tool.
Though complex technologically, NREL hopes that simuwatt Audit will
facilitate faster and more accurate data collection and accelerate the
identification and analysis of potential energy conservation measures. By
essentially combining the best of both the virtual audit and the onsite
assessment, this software aims to reduce cost of walk-through audits and
increase the information input (i.e., accuracy) of rapid energy modeling.
The database for simuwatt Audit is the Building Component Library (BCL),
an online repository of energy data on individual building components and
energy conservation measures. This program allows auditors to download
a component (lighting), or a conservation measure (adding overhangs to
all of the windows) and insert it directly into their model. The large-scale
analysis capabilities of such a vast data bank will provide robust
performance metrics on a wide range of retrofit technologies and measures
and also allow portfolio managers to measure their stock against a
statistically significant baseline.
The simuwatt Audit program takes its energy modeling component from
NREL’s OpenStudio Platform, which uses the data collected during the
audit along with the BCL to produce a whole-building energy model and
analysis. OpenStudio leverages Google SketchUp to create detailed 3-Dbuilding and system renderings based on building geometry, envelope,
plug loads, people, daylighting and more. It is not so different from other
energy modeling software, except that it is free and open-source, which
means that development teams are able to either add plug-ins based on
their specific situation or submit code to NREL which may be integrated into
the platform. This ability allows for the rapid development of new
applications of the software and a level of customization not found in other
modeling software.
Finally, the energy information is integrated into the concept3D geometry
capture software, which allows users to draw a 3-D building model as they
perform their assessment. The costs of an energy audit are often driven
higher because of multiple site visits and the process of recording and
modeling efficiency upgrades separately. By allowing auditors to build the
model as they go through the building, they not only save time, but also
reduce the likelihood of errors in manual data transfer. The concept3D
software will also make multi-building analyses more streamlined, a feature
that is crucial when analyzing an entire campus or portfolio due to the
volume of documentation an auditor accumulates during the process.
These savings are not marginal; NREL has set the goal of a 75 percent
reduction in cost for investment-grade level III audits from using this
The combination of site-specific, immediate model creation with
aggregation and large-scale analysis capabilities should drastically improve
the toolkit of the energy auditor and the industry as a whole. When
realized, this technology will enable smaller teams to conduct more
accurate audits while reducing costs. The Department of Defense’s
Environmental Security Technology Certification Program has announced
that it will demonstrate simuwatt Audit on a number of facilities, including
West Point and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Should these
and other demonstrations be successful, concept3D, which holds an
exclusive license to commercialize NREL’s audit framework, plans to roll out
the product in the beginning of 2014.
As part of the simuwatt Audit program, NREL is also tackling the problem of
people by piloting an advanced BPI Certification that outlines detailed
workflow process for auditors, but the introduction of simuwatt Audit itself is
a big step into the future. While this technology will likely not replace the
standard toolkit of an energy auditor, it will make the toolkit more powerful
and effective than ever before. If simuwatt Audit can actually reduce the
cost of the audit and provide scale to the energy auditing industry, the
massive potential of building energy efficiency may actually be realized.
***Comly Wilson is a Research Associate at CleanEdison, a national provider
of clean energy and energy efficiency training and certification courses. He
studied Energy and Environmental Policy at American University and now
lives in New York.
Tags: apps, efficiency modeling, energy efficiency audit, energy efficiency
retrofit, software

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