How to Cut Buildings' Energy Use Without Expensive Renovations

Significant reductions in energy use might not require physical retrofitting.

Building engineers are like doctors who treat structures instead of humans: they monitor a buildings' vital functions, diagnose problems, and figure out how to remedy them. They’re responsible for heating, cooling, electricity, and water systems, and everything else most people take for granted in their daily lives. In the past decade or so, buildings have been wired to report their symptoms to engineers, but they don’t always share the most relevant information about what’s ailing them.

In an energy efficiency pilot program, Microsoft set out to change that. The company concluded that streamlining communication between its buildings and engineers, it could significantly reduce energy use. In a report [PDF] co-authored with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the management company Accenture, found that Microsoft can save as much as $1 million in a year and pay back its investment within 18 months. Similar programs have found that, on average, companies can cut energy use by 10 percent and in some cases by as much as a third.

The findings are significant because they signal that investing in physical retrofits of its buildings isn't necessary for major energy savings. For the experiment, Microsoft installed software that collected data on its buildings’ vital signs and told building engineers about the most pressing problems. The software helps engineers prioritize before they have to wade through gigabytes of complaint report forms, and identifies problems that engineers might have missed.

From a corporate perspective, the magic is that these software fixes aren’t as expensive as a physical retrofit of an aging building. Sustainability managers in the private sector often resort to touting the return-on-investment that their programs promise: "Invest in solar power now, and have more money 10 years from now!" But for corporations, the at-the-moment bottom line rules. If a company can save more energy per dollar invested by installing software than by renovating the building, it’s more likely to act.

This solution works best for buildings constructed in the past five to 10 years, according to the report, because those buildings already have the capacity to communicate with their engineers. Buildings live for a long time, so it’s important to find ways to diagnose their energy problems. This sort of technology will still be useful in monitoring energy-efficient buildings for signs of sickness, but ideally corporations will be dealing with heartier patients—buildings that need less energy to make it through the day in the first place.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user maxintosh

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