Update on Facility Energy Usage Tracking and Accounting Software
August 1, 2002Computer software that monitors facility energy usage and identifies usage patterns, anomalies, and demand reduction opportunities is aiding in the effort to reduce energy consumption and boost savings. These software programs commonly referred to as energy usage tracking and accounting software, also known as energy information systems (EIS), are playing an increasingly important role for Federal agencies. A survey recently conducted by DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) reveals valuable insights for Federal energy managers who are considering whether to add energy information technology to their utility management program.
In 1998, DOE's Seattle Regional Office supported several Federal agencies with the purchase and installation of energy usage tracking software. In fall 2001, PNNL contacted these agencies and several others using newer generations of accounting software, to discuss their experiences. Ten Federal agencies or sites were surveyed including the five that received support from DOE's Seattle Regional Office. They included the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as the National Park Service and Federal Aviation Administration.
Each site was asked to respond to a series of questions regarding the software tool selected, installation of the software, training or resources provided, the type of data tracked, pathways for data entering the system, reports generated, usefulness of the tool, and issues or complaints. The focus of the survey was on the experience and opinions of the actual users and did not include a technical review of the software system. While each facility has unique needs and experiences differed, several common issues were identified from the agency contacts. The following is a summary of the key findings.
- Sites with motivated staff are effectively using the software to save energy and are having an impact on their facility's energy consumption. Others are using a fraction of their tool's capabilities, focusing mainly on "getting the bills out," and are satisfied doing so. Sites that are successful in managing their utilities generally have a "champion" who makes it his or her personal mission. Attrition and turnover can be a challenge in maintaining a successful program.
- Most sites indicated some training was available when the tool was installed. A bigger concern, however, is on-going training because, as staff members change, much of the initial knowledge can be lost. Choosing a software vendor that has a history of quality, on-going support is important. In one instance, a motivated Federal energy staff person taught herself how to use the software tool, requesting assistance from the software vendor on an as-needed basis. Beyond a tool's basic functions, users also identified general training on how to better manage utilities as equally important.
- Change represents the biggest risk to an energy usage data system. Software companies can be sold or go out of business, leading to no technical support and, in a worst-case scenario, software that will no longer be supported for new computer operating systems. Selecting a vendor who will be in business for some time is very important. At the local level, processes that are put in place to automatically collect data can disappear when external organizations (e.g., utilities) change their systems. It is helpful for Federal sites to develop a good relationship with serving utilities, understand what the "critical" data paths are, and be prepared to quickly adjust when things change. Expect your accounting system to evolve and need upgrading over time.
- Every tool should be customizable by the site. Flexibility is important, especially for sites where needs are constantly changing. At a minimum, the site should be able to customize reports and other outputs so they do not have to run to the software vendor when needs change. Sometimes the systems or data requirements change so frequently or are so complex that a custom-developed system is a good choice for a facility. There are advantages to building a custom energy usage tracking system, but it also comes with a high cost and a commitment to maintain the system. Some facilities rely on de facto spreadsheets or tools because they have not looked at anything else and probably would be better served by a different tool.
- System cost, features, and agency needs are a determining factor in choosing a tool, and if fully used to manage and improve facilities, the cost should be easy to justify. Many facilities look for assistance purchasing, installing, and learning their system from their DOE Regional Office, FEMP's Technical Assistance program, their State energy office, their local utility, and with purchased training from software vendors. Other systems were purchased (or developed) along with an energy savings performance contract as part of the measurement and verification process.
For Diane Mansker, an energy engineer technician with Yosemite National Park and one of the PNNL survey respondents, energy usage software tools have made a difference. "With an electrical meter you can't tell much about your systems, it is like having a snapshot of your electrical usage that is only read once a month," said Mansker. "With an energy tracking system I can monitor energy usage 24 hours a day and have that information to change operating processes and manage the buildings' demand side usage. This saves energy, time of use charges, and most importantly the bottom line."
Although many of the initial users of accounting software started with PC-based products, the field has rapidly moved to Web-based software systems with many more capabilities than the earlier software. DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) recently analyzed over a dozen systems and has compiled a report entitled "Web-Based Energy Information Systems for Large Commercial Buildings" regarding the types of systems and features available. You may also contact Mary Ann Piete at MAPiette@lbl.gov or 510-486-6286. (Also, see "Utility Accounting Software Helps California National Guard Save Money," FEMP Focus, May/June 1999. This article provides information on the key points to consider when investigating accounting software.)
Dedicated staff can be one of the most important keys to successfully using software tools to manage energy use. Training in the use of the software selected and interpreting site data to identify savings opportunities are critical to maximizing the use of tracking software. Finally, although some software tools clearly have more features than others, each site should identify its needs and select an appropriate tool because there is no "one size fits all."
The EIS field is still evolving rapidly and the tools available are varied and ever expanding. With the advances in metering, control, and monitoring through energy management systems, a wide variety of approaches are possible. The software and tools available today can be very valuable for Federal agencies in managing energy costs and identifying opportunities for savings.
For more information or support, please contact Cheri Sayer of DOE's Seattle Regional Office at 206-553-7838 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Bill Chvala of PNNL at 509-372-4558 at email@example.com, or Norman Bourassa of LBNL at 510-486-6724 or firstname.lastname@example.org.