The risks associated with climbing above 2°C are alarming, and we're not doing enough to reduce consumption. Take buildings: with the immense markets surrounding energy efficiency and retrofits, you wouldn't be crazy to think we're reducing their impact on our climate. But direct and indirect emissions from buildings rose to 10 GtCO2 in 2019. That was both the highest ever recorded and almost 2.5% of our entire budget. Many of our buildings remain highly inefficient.
Utility whole building data: An overlooked missing puzzle piece
The problem, and any viable solution, comes down to scale. Consider your utility bill. Occasionally, you probably see a data comparison chart – how your energy consumption stacks up to similar customers'.
Say you're a mixed-use building owner (hey, maybe you are!) with commercial and residential tenants. That handy comparison chart? If your building is sub-metered, you don't have one. And you probably can't get it, even if you try. Now zoom out. Without baselines across all building types, there's no way to target efficiency work, meaningfully decarbonize the sector or leverage buildings as resources. Recent events in Texas highlight the pressing need for a better understanding and utilization of our buildings. The data we'll need, the only baseline data set that can truly scale our climate solutions for buildings, is inaccessible. But it doesn’t have to be.
Data access that benefits everyone
Imagine this scenario: building owners get accurate historical whole building data from utilities (monthly, daily, or hourly), utilities identify least efficient buildings and create pipelines for existing programs, and program administrators, vendors and regulators can use the data to benchmark, evaluate opportunities, calibrate and perform M&V. It's a win-win-win, and it's possible.
That's not to say it's easy.
If you work within a utility or alongside one, you know that the systems that govern data are some combination of complicated and/or outdated. Considering those who need the data might not be utility account holders and that buildings don't always align with typical utility customer segmentation for programs, it's clear that traditional operating mentalities won't deliver the data we need.
To make the scenario above possible, one very important thing needs to happen first: Utility-enabled whole building data access.
So, how do we make it happen?
- Take a customer-type agnostic approach. When utilities move to a customer-agnostic approach, it doesn't mean that their customers become unimportant. Instead, it means that they're looking at data for buildings rather than customers; multitenant buildings are frequently many customers and of varied types. This approach makes it easier on building representatives (from owners to energy efficiency consultants) and gives utilities the ability to target buildings for EE upgrades and incentives.
- Combine utility data and building owner knowledge. Multi-tenancy is the thorn in the side of utility-enabled data access: Building owners have no rights to tenant data, and utilities only have customer and meter data (without that building-level view). Luckily for utilities, building owners know their units and who their tenants are/were – better than a utility ever could. An approach that leverages utility data and building owner knowledge is an elegant way to get accurate, aggregated data in building owner hands while maintaining privacy.
- Get involved with the stakeholder community. Whether you're a utility program manager facing an ordinance that will require new data access or a legislator or city official trying to reduce energy consumption in buildings, there are groups eager to work on the problems and solutions with you. Organizations like MEEA, ACEEE, and the Institute for Market Transformation are committed to providing best practices and helping regions shape effective building-focused legislation. Conversations about the future of the building sector are happening as we speak, and we need more utilities, technologists, and energy experts at the table.
For the foreseeable future, approaches to building decarbonization and sustainability will vary region-to-region and utility-to-utility. Meaningful change, the kind that will reduce building sector emissions, depends on scalable solutions, and that requires generating and leveraging utility data at the building level. Fortunately, the model to make this possible exists – and it's a win-win-win for all involved.