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Pitch

Want to cut carbon pollution? Start w/ buildings: give real-time feedback on energy consumption and crowdsource the hunt for energy leaks.


Description

Summary

This proposal would widely implement the strategy of making the energy usage of government buildings (both the numbers and the data in visualized form) available online and unavoidably seen within the buildings—all on a continuous, real-time basis. State and local governments should also consider making the energy use of commercial and residential buildings publicly available online in similar but more anonymized form to allow for cross-comparisons while avoiding privacy concerns. A portion of the energy savings could be set aside as a potential reward or financial incentive for those who find fixable energy leaks.

This idea is based on several principles and findings. As we know, commercial and residential buildings are a major source of carbon pollution, accounting for a third of greenhouse gas emissions. Through a Massachusetts-based "Big Data" analysis firm, the General Services Administration found that the federal government can save energy across 180 buildings by taking steps such as fixing broken exhaust fans. Without any site visits required, the firm found this culprit by assessing energy consumption data combined with other available data such as weather and building features.

So why not put the same kinds of energy consumption data together and make them easily accessible—for the building occupants as well as the public and any interested parties invited to hunt for and crowdsource potential causes of energy waste?


What actions do you propose?

Under this proposal, state and local governments would make the energy usage of its buildings available online on a continuous, real-time basis — both the numbers and the data in visualized form. Policymakers should also consider new state laws and city ordinances to make the energy use of private commercial and residential buildings publicly available online in similar but more anonymized form (as well as the choice to opt-out) to allow for cross-comparisons while avoiding privacy concerns. A portion of the energy savings could be set aside as a potential reward or financial incentive.

Within each building, they could install numerical meters (or LED computer monitor set to the webpage) in each major area or building level so that people can unavoidably see their own energy consumption rate and take corrective action. The continuous feedback and easy visual access are important because when left to our own perceptions of energy use instead, research suggests that we tend to focus on the frequently-used objects rather than the worst energy hogs.

The goal is to crowdsource the identification of fixable energy leaks in its buildings and energy waste by building occupants; heighten those occupants' awareness of their energy consumption and make their behavior amenable to social pressure; spur public support for energy efficiency upgrades and retrofit programs; and experiment with the best tweaks to produce the best results for other cities to replicate and scale up.


Who will take these actions?

In terms of the legal policies required, the state and municipal governments would likely have to enact new state and city laws, although depending on the state, governors and mayors may be able to implement the policies via executive action. Additional legal analysis would be required if private sector buildings are also targeted. These governmental actors should work with utilities, consumers, advocacy organizations, voters, and other stakeholders to develop and implement the laws and regulations.

In terms of the practical specifics, the government officials taking action would have to inventory the target buildings; design or obtain the software and technology required to collect, process, and present the energy usage data; install the necessary equipment; and perform the required cost-benefit analysis and performance monitoring. They would also have to work with utilities, consumers, and the media to bring publicity to the effort and spur public interest in participating in the crowdsourcing experiment.

 


Where will these actions be taken?

This proposal is focused on the U.S., largely in order to minimize the legal complexities. The program could be piloted in several volunteer states and cities first, then replicated and scaled to other states and cities.


How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

Commercial and residential buildings are a major source of industrial carbon pollution, accounting for about a third or more of greenhouse gas emissions. (In some urbanized areas, that portion may be higher.) Improving energy efficiency is thus a "low-hanging fruit," especially given its widespread political support, the comparatively low cost of many proposals, the substantial carbon pollution cuts possible, and the diversity of possible steps.

Related statistics suggest that this proposal could also create big energy savings. If we make buildings more energy efficient through smarter building codes, a new report by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group estimated that cities could lower their building energy usage by 30%. In terms of individual buildings, the GSA's case study of the International Trade Center building in Washington, DC, is instructive. After the assessment, the GSA adjusted the settings of the building's fans and saved $800,000 in just one year.


What are other key benefits?

In addition to the direct benefits already outlined, the proposal would spur public support for energy efficiency upgrades and retrofit programs; increase public awareness of the importance of not wasting energy; and allow the implementing government to experiment in order to produce policies and tricks that other states and cities could replicate and scale up.


What are the proposal’s costs?

The implementing government would incur the costs of the software and technology required to collect, process, and present the energy usage data, as well as the design, installation, and maintenance of necessary equipment. The public affairs and legal work would also not be free. However, those costs would presumably be offset by the money saved due to lower energy use.

Among the risks are that there might not actually be much energy efficiency gains possible because the buildings are already operating at the bare minimum levels, the visual cues to building occupants don't work effectively, and there is a backlash from privacy advocates, which could also potentially invite legal challenges.


Time line

The proposed actions could be phased in over the very short-term, likely less than 3-5 years.


Related proposals

This proposal is a very slightly revised version of the proposal submitted here, for the City of Somerville:


References

'Big data' is solving the problem of $200 billion of wasted energy, Business Insider, May 28, 2015,http://www.businessinsider.com/big-data-tackles-energy-waste-from-big-buildings-2015-5

Cities are lapping countries on climate action, Grist, Sep. 29, 2014,http://grist.org/cities/cities-are-lapping-countries-on-climate-action

This is why people are so clueless about how much energy they use, The Wash. Post., June 2, 2015,http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/06/02/how-your-brain-tricks-you-into-misunderstanding-your-energy-use

If you really want to save energy at home, forget about your light switches, Vox, June 6, 2015.