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Energy Atlas Offers New Insights into LA's Power Consumption

The atlas lets users compare energy usage statistics across time, location, demographic and other factors.

by / November 18, 2015

In Los Angeles, lower-income dwellings use more electricity per square foot than higher-income households — that’s a given. But look a little closer, and the picture changes: This trend is only true in low-income residences built before 1950. After that, the residences actually become more energy efficient than their high-income counterparts.

Traditionally, that kind of information has been difficult to access. But a new tool housed at the University of California, Los Angeles aims to make it easy.

The Los Angeles Energy Atlas, launched in September after four years of work from a coalition centered around UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, is a data tool offering aggregate information on electricity statistics across the nation’s most populous county.

The database is massive: According to CCSC Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives Zoe Elizabeth, the atlas right now pulls data from more than 500 million records to provide address-level information on energy usage from 2006 to 2010, with plans to add 2010 to 2015 statistics in the next year. That covers a quarter of California’s energy usage and about half of its “vulnerable populations,” Elizabeth said during a webinar held Monday, Nov. 16.

“Literally with a click of your button, you can access a tremendous wealth of information,” she said.

The database allows users to compare information such as electricity usage, natural gas usage, building characteristics and demographic information between neighborhoods, cities or city groups. Users can further break down the information in a number of ways, comparing electricity use per capita to electricity use per square foot, for instance.

That’s important because the way one slices up the data can change the picture dramatically.

“[Malibu uses] about 10 times more energy on a per capita basis than Hawaiian Gardens; Hawaiian Gardens does use more energy on a per square foot basis [than Malibu],” Elizabeth said, adding that the tool has many possible government and research-level uses.

For instance, it can be used to inform policy decisions, and in fact it has already begun to — the city of Los Angeles is developing a program to benchmark energy use among buildings. And in order to begin doing so, it needed to set a square footage threshold at which to begin collecting information. Make the threshold too high, and the data set becomes sparse. Make the threshold too low, and the number of property owners required to report will become enormous.

So the city consulted the atlas to get a better idea of how to capture a good picture of the city’s energy usage without making the process too cumbersome.

“Even going down to a threshold of 30,000 square feet, you weren’t able to capture 50 percent of the city’s energy [use],” Elizabeth said.

Another function she envisions for the atlas is building greenhouse gas emission inventories. Many local governments are working to catalogue greenhouse gas emissions in the context of California’s governor pushing for decarbonization, the federal government trying to demonstrate climate change initiatives to the rest of the world and tech companies working to develop air quality mapping applications.

For a lot of cities, comprehensive data on greenhouse gas emissions has been difficult to wrangle into a useful form. The atlas, she hopes, will accomplish a lot of the ground work involved in setting up such inventories and allow the government to focus on reducing greenhouse gases instead of just quantifying them.

The map doesn’t go into detail on all sources of greenhouse gas emissions, but buildings account for a big chunk of them.

“It’s not always clear what the methods for providing [greenhouse gas] data was," she said, "and so the Energy Atlas actually provides that at the city level and then breaks it down into really meaningful characteristics, doing a lot of the work for making a greenhouse gas inventory."

In the future, Elizabeth said she hopes to see the atlas grow in a number of ways. She wants to bring in the most recent data and then update it annually or bi-annually. She also anticipates that the atlas could expand outside of L.A. County and could include climate data.

Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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