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