As millions of "smart" electric meters are being installed in commercial buildings, electric utilities are gathering — and starting to provide — boatloads of meter data showing usage in 15-, 30- or 60-minute intervals. The goal is to help facility managers better manage their power consumption and peak demand. But many facility managers are scratching their heads when it comes to converting that data into money-saving action. To achieve those ends, some are now using real-time Web-based software to digest and portray that information in ways that lead directly to their bottom lines.
While much of the so-called smart grid involves the routing of power transmission and other actions far from customer busbars, utilities across much of the United States and Canada are also replacing their old electromechanical meters with digital smart meters. Many commercial properties bigger than a bodega are likely to have one in the next year or two. Such meters are, in effect, electronic sentinels that continuously communicate with a utility, sending it usage data — and possibly receiving commands in return. The goal is to foster real-time customer awareness of power use and, with customer permission, to alter that use when needed to limit grid-wide load.
Such functions are already performed, to varying extents, in facilities with energy management systems (EMS) that control HVAC, lighting and other equipment. Where peak electric demand is monitored, and operators can control it, commands may be issued to reduce non-critical light levels, adjust air handler fan speeds, etc., until the need for a demand reduction has passed.
Given the ability to see, via real-time displays and retrospective analyses, how a building's hourly load varies, facility managers have found problems with mechanical systems, erroneous EMS settings, and other issues that when corrected, cut energy waste and cost. A few have reduced annual consumption as much as 20 percent.
Facilities billed under time-of-use electric rates have, for years, been able to receive interval meter data, though usually too delayed to take immediate action. Utilities offered either e-mailed files of monthly interval readings, or provided access to the data via websites where it is displayed 24 hours after the fact. Those sites may include basic analytical tools, such as hourly load profiles, power factor and load duration curves for customer-specified time periods. Such static displays are available for free or at a nominal charge appearing on monthly utility bills.
By marrying digital meter outputs and wireless/Web communications, interval data may now be economically accessed and delivered to many in near real-time. Customers may either plug directly into such meters, providing immediate on-site data, or access the utility data stream in real-time via private websites. The latter collect and portray the data by subscription and offer graphical interfaces more robust than available at utility data sites.
Called "energy dashboards," such displays may include:
For a portfolio of buildings, pictures of each property may be available that, when clicked, bring up the data for the chosen facility. Some dashboards sound alarms when a demand-response action should be activated to limit or cut load, in anticipation of payment from the utility or grid operator. Others include algorithms to direct, based on pre-programmed pricing, which energy source should be used when a choice exists: natural gas or oil in a dual-fueled boiler, or switching between electric and gas-driven chillers, for example. To that end, at least one dashboard shows hourly wholesale power pricing posted at grid operator websites.
What Energy Dashboards Can Do
Sorting Out Energy Dashboard Software
Who Might Benefit From a Dashboard?