Power Users

Sophisticated software helps Los Angeles County and the state of California cut energy consumption in government facilities.

by / January 29, 2003 0
Small adjustments in energy use add up to big savings when spread among public buildings throughout a county or state; but pinpointing air conditioners that can afford to run one degree warmer or air exchangers that could use a shot of WD-40 in these scattered facilities is a daunting proposition.

With a crippling energy crisis not long behind them, it's no surprise that two government agencies in California have harnessed IT to help cut energy consumption and costs. As part of its Enterprise Energy Information Management System (EEMIS) program, Los Angeles County implemented the EEM Suite from Silicon Energy to help analyze its use of power. And California's Department of General Services (DGS) uses WebGen Systems' Intelligent Use of Energy (IUE) system to monitor consumption in more than 60 state buildings and automatically control its use of power in about 45.

In Los Angeles County, the EEMIS program's goal is to collect data on energy consumption in the county's largest buildings and use that information to cut energy use, said Howard Choy, energy division manager with Los Angeles County's Internal Services Department. Some savings will come from strategies that allow existing equipment to operate more efficiently; other improvements will come from replacing climate control, lighting and other systems using older technology.

Los Angeles County spent a year exploring energy management systems before it began implementing the EEM Suite in June 2001, Choy said. The county now has about 80 buildings connected to the system and hopes to expand that to 150. Los Angeles County uses more than 60 million square feet in more than 2,500 buildings, but these target facilities account for about two-thirds of its energy use, he said.

The EEM Suite employs data collected in near real time from meters and electrical devices to produce a variety of energy consumption and cost reports. Silicon Energy's customers run the software on servers in their own facilities; users access it through a Web browser. Los Angeles County paid $1 million for the software and its implementation. In each building, the county installed hardware to collect data and transmit it to the central server. Equipping a typical building to collect only utility meter data costs as little as $2,000. Buildings can also be equipped to gather as much information as desired from additional devices, Choy said.

Spot the Spike
Viewing the software-generated reports, it's easy to locate consumption spikes and problems, Choy said. "Every time we look at an operating profile of a building, there's typically something to see that raises a question," he said. "Why is this spike here, or why did this equipment come on at two or three in the morning?" Unfortunately, the reports present more data than anyone can absorb.

In the next phase of EEMIS, the county will manage by exception. When operations in a building fall outside established parameters, Silicon Energy's software will send an alert.

For example, the county can define the highest consumption level a building should reach. That number is important, Choy explained, because for nonresidential customers, utility companies base half the monthly bill on the "demand charge" -- a charge defined by the peak consumption level for the month.

"We can look at what that high point has been historically, and we can establish an alarm when we get to 75 or 80 percent of that level," Choy said. "When we get the alarm, we can investigate circumstances and implement procedures in the building -- for example, ramp back on certain pieces of equipment -- so we don't exceed the next level and get hit with higher charges."

The county has not used EEM Suite long enough to quantify its benefits, but the potential for improvement is clear, Choy said.

Other public-sector customers using Silicon Energy's software include Sacramento County, Calif., and California State University at Long Beach. Also, several utility companies incorporate the technology in energy management systems offered through their own portals. Those services have many government users, said Jayne Swystun, director of corporate marketing at Silicon Energy.

DGS Takes Control
Prompted by the energy crisis of 2000, California's DGS launched a multipronged effort to cut consumption in state-owned buildings. One initiative employs WebGen's IUE system to monitor energy use, and where possible, take better control of electric-powered systems. In buildings where it's feasible to install the necessary equipment, IUE automatically adjusts heating, air conditioning, lighting and other systems to operate more efficiently.

Using a grant from the California Energy Commission, DGS originally set out to install real-time monitoring systems at a number of state sites. But officials soon realized that passive meters didn't do enough, said Randy Ferguson, chief of the DGS Energy Management Division. "They didn't go to the next step of giving you the ability to control and optimize the use of the buildings."

After evaluating numerous products, DGS decided to test IUE in a two-year pilot, slated to run through October 2003. DGS will use data from the pilot's final six months to evaluate the benefits IUE provides.

Linked to existing building management systems, IUE measures energy consumption, forecasts future energy needs and automatically controls devices to operate more efficiently. Real-time data taken from meters and devices is transmitted over the Internet to WebGen's server farm in Andover, Mass. The system also uses data on local weather, building occupancy, utility rates and other factors to help formulate conservation strategies.

IUE uses neural networks to "learn" consumption patterns and devise ways to use less power. After measuring the performance of all air conditioners and air exchangers in a building, it will "find the best way to maintain comfort, which is our primary goal, while reducing the maximum amount of energy" these devices use, said Paul O'Conor, chief marketing officer at WebGen Systems. The system might, for instance, make the building rely more heavily on a newer unit that runs well, and less on an older machine.

As of November 2002, the DGS had used the system to monitor more than 60 buildings, mainly in Sacramento, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, Ferguson said. The department equipped about 25 of those for automated control and could add another eight or 10.

A Victim of Success
Evaluating IUE at the end of the pilot will pose a challenge: "We're kind of a victim of our own success," Ferguson said. California cut energy consumption by 20 percent in the buildings IUE monitors, but those savings come from voluntary conservation efforts and a program to retrofit buildings with new equipment, as well as from the WebGen system. "Part of our study is going to have to be able to deconstruct this full range of savings to help attribute who did what," he said. To show a return on its investment, the DGS found IUE has provided energy reductions of 5 percent to 7 percent.

Ferguson would not say what IUE costs, but the agency pays a monthly fee for the hosted service, based on a fixed price for the two-year implementation.

Although he can't enumerate its benefits until after the evaluation, Ferguson said IUE has already proven itself as a diagnostic tool. For example, the system showed one building used more energy than necessary on weekends and holidays. Investigating the problem, building managers recalled a painting project four months prior when fans operated nonstop to clear out fumes; no one had turned the fans off.

By locating the problem and reprogramming those units, instead of letting them run for another four months, "we probably saved about $25,000 on that one building," Ferguson said. The waste went unnoticed "because they didn't have systems that gave them easy access to information about what was going on in their buildings."

Contributing Writer Merrill Douglas is a freelance writer based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology. E-mail: mdouglas@stny.rr.com
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer