Energy visibility: Do we really manage what we measure?

June 8, 2010
Energy Expert Peter Garforth says visualization of energy performance is an indispensable prerequisite to effective energy management.

The phrase, “We only manage what we measure,” has become so embedded in the mythology of management that it’s taken on the appearance of an eternal, unchangeable truth. I was recently caused to reflect on this certainty while participating in the excellent Industrial Energy Technology Conference organized by the Energy Systems Lab of Texas A&M University. For an energy strategist like me, it’s easy to forget how important technology is to effective energy management, as well as effective senior management support.

Selecting and installing measurement and metering technology is always one of the first priorities for a company embarking on a more rigorous approach to energy. The ranges of technology available are improving by the year, allowing wired and wireless tracking of just about every energy-related variable imaginable. So, does the installation of effective metering and sub-metering improve energy productivity? All too often it has useful, but minor, effects, which might make it worthwhile to explore whether we really manage what we measure when it comes to energy.

Back in the dim, distant past of mechanical gas meters and pencils and paper, I came across a measurement discipline that has stuck with me for years. A gas-fired furnace had its own sub-meter, something that is often sadly missing even today. During every shift, an employee religiously read the meter and noted in a log the volume of gas used for that shift. When asked what was done with the gas data, the answer was that the data was stored so the gas consumption history was available if management needed it. On further questioning, it seemed that management had never used the data. Thus we had the situation where a perfectly good measurement technology (for its era), supported by a good tracking process, added absolutely no energy productivity whatsoever.

In another plant, the energy team equipped a glass furnace with an ultrasonic flow meter. Some ingenious employee came up with the idea to take the electronic output of the meter and connecting it to a large-digit, LED display, making the instantaneous gas consumption visible to all who passed by. Instead of configuring it in units such as cubic feet, cubic meters, gigajoules or Btus, this same genius calibrated the meter to show output in dollars. Where only the energy-secret-society members would be likely to understand the former output measurements, we all could understand the latter. It was impossible for any observer to fail to understand the thousands of dollars an hour pouring through the furnace. As a result, everyone was challenged to “slow down the meter.”


There is very little difference in the basic technology and management process decisions between these examples. The key differences are that the second example had results that were visible, transparent, understandable, relevant and available to management in a timely fashion.

Today, there are more elaborate examples. It’s increasingly common to see plants or complex buildings in which large investments have been made to capture and monitor every energy-related variable. These outputs feed the databases that potentially could be the basis for real-time optimization of energy productivity and greenhouse gas emission of the plant/building as a whole.

Whenever I see a plant like this, I ask to see the energy use, energy costs and carbon balances for the site. Typically presented in the form of simple Sankey diagrams, these would show all the energy and associated flows, useful and waste. The first reaction I receive to this question often is a blank stare and a request for clarification. This is nothing short of amazing, because Sankey diagrams immediately communicate how much is paid for energy, how much is usefully assigned to process and how much is wasted. The associated carbon balance would graphically show which parts of the energy value chain expose the facility operations to the highest legislative risk.

Like the visual cost meter on the glass furnace, data presented in this way is easily understood by non-energy experts, or most of key management. Once the energy challenge is visualized, it tends to be managed effectively. In Europe, the start of universal labeling of buildings through simply understood energy performance labels, available to all tenants and buyers, is revolutionizing the general public’s understanding of energy use. Again, the key is good measurement, supported by open, transparent and understandable visualization.

A decent percentage of energy managers’ data manipulation efforts should focus on making them relevant and visible to decision-making management. Maybe we need to change the truism. Instead of “We only manage what we measure,” it’s really “We only manage what we see.” Visualization of energy and climate performance is an indispensable prerequisite to effective energy management.

Peter Garforth is principal of Garforth International LLC, Toledo, Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected].

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