Like many other aspects of energy management, the dashboard phenomenon is an application of a business tool developed for other purposes. Using generic dashboard software customized to their needs, C-suite personnel have for several years been observing and tightening their operations in near real-time, instead of waiting for quarterly reports. Static data typically seen in a boardroom slide presentation becomes "live" when dashboard software links corporate data collection programs — stock value, hourly widget production, daily revenue, for example — to information displays that are continuously and automatically refreshed.
As of summer 2010, more than a dozen real-time energy dashboards were available. In addition, many utilities offer one of at least four brands of software for accessing static after-the-fact interval data. Meter-data service providers that read customer submeters and bill tenants for power consumption may also offer on-line access to meter data, though much of it is only monthly readings. In addition, many energy service companies, consultants and power producers market energy accounting programs that may include dashboard-style displays, but digest and portray only monthly billing data in various forms. The latter are typically used for long-term analyses — such as energy budgeting, forecasting and billing analysis — rather than providing minute-by-minute information.
Few of the real-time dashboards presently include common energy analysis tools, such as linear regression, load duration curves or tariff models. Facility managers will probably still need to resort to other software to perform such functions. And few on the market have a means to directly actuate a demand response reduction, thus requiring the viewer to understand what is being displayed and initiate an action through some other means. That's a bit like driving a car without having immediate access to the brakes. However, it could work if an EMS operator is monitoring the dashboard. Several major EMS providers offer a real-time dashboard with some of their installations.
While corporate level systems may be server-based to ensure corporate data security, most energy dashboards are instead Web-based (i.e., "cloud") subscription services. Potential users should therefore give some thought to depending on a single supplier for service continuity, the reliability of one's Web access, and any concerns with data security. Monthly cost is usually moderate (a few hundred dollars per month per site or meter), though there may be substantial initial setup costs for things like meter/utility interfacing and customizing the display.
Residential and small commercial customers may instead purchase energy information displays (EIDs). Looking like large PDAs, their screens are linked through either hard wire or a wireless connection to devices that read standard electric meters in real time. Some also collect and store the data for analysis on a PC. Savings resulting from such added awareness often stem from one-time discoveries of electric devices left running overnight or other times when not needed. For the cost to buy and install some EIDs, however, a small customer might instead secure a basic energy audit that would find not only such problems, but also identify other ways to cut energy costs. Some utilities and state agencies pay for part or all of such audits.
Several of the largest software and Web hosting firms are beta-testing free Web-based EIDs that use one's existing PC and utility data streams from a smart meter or monthly utility billing (if Web-accessible). They portray the data in various ways to attract viewers to their advertising, or to secure paying subscriptions for more robust services. Several other firms offer such software through utilities, calling them "home energy portals" designed to encourage customers toward energy efficiency. For those with only one meter and a simple electric rate, such software may avoid the need to invest in EID hardware. Based on examinations of the beta offerings, however, they are little more than novelties at this point.
What Energy Dashboards Can Do
Sorting Out Energy Dashboard Software
Who Might Benefit From a Dashboard?