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Why Don’t Utility Companies Give their Customers the Information they Need to Reduce their Costs?

Aug. 12, 2014

Watson: Providing usage profiles is the single most valuable thing that utilities could do to help their customers reduce the amount of energy they use. Since they don’t do it, it makes you question whether utility companies really want to help their customers reduce their bills doesn't it?

Watson: Assuming that utility companies actually want to help their customers reduce the amount of energy that they use and their (the utility companies) income and profits Holmes, what is the one thing they could do that would help the most?

Holmes: There’s a simple answer to that question Watson; give them access to their real-time and historical usage and costs in an easy-to-understand format.

We have always used the data from utility meters to expose the quickest and least expensive opportunities to cut utility costs. Utility meter data alone shows when every dollar is spent.

Watson: Actual utility data would show an owner of an industrial plant how much energy the building uses during each shift, each day of the week and as production and weather vary wouldn’t it?

Holmes: Right. And it’s easy to use that data to create immediate, no cost savings.

Watson: My impression from my energy engineering education and researching energy projects and programs such as Energy Star Energy Auditing and Benchmarking is that conserving energy involves a lot of time gathering and analyzing data and spending big bucks for capital projects to modify buildings and energy systems. But you’re telling me that utility meter data alone can be used to create immediate no cost savings?

Give me an example Holmes

Holmes: We recently put a small monitoring system into a plant owned by one of the world’s largest companies. The only points we are monitoring are the Electric Meter, Gas Meter and outdoor temperature and humidity. Within the first week we found that more than 50% of the annual electrical costs are for a Base Load that is on 24/7/365. Less than 50% of the annual electrical costs are associated with production periods which is the whole reason the plant exists in the first place.

Watson: Where does the Base Load come from? What equipment is on?

Holmes: Again you have zeroed in on the key point Watson. They don’t know. As we pointed out in our Blog “Where Do the Energy $$ Go in an Industrial Plant” (1), no one knows where the energy and energy dollars go in their Plant. When this client totals up all of the lights and equipment that should be running, it only adds up to less than one half of the Base Load.

They had no idea of how much money they were spending on electricity outside of production hours before they had the monitored data. The plant manager has indicated that he will find and reduce that Base Load.

Watson: That does seem awfully simple Holmes. I see your point about data exposing immediate no-cost and low-cost savings opportunities. By spending a little time in the plant at night and on weekends they can do what we do, trot around, look, listen and with a clamp-on ammeter, open up electrical panels and find out exactly where that Base Load is coming from. Then they can establish procedures to run only what is required each hour of the week and use the monitoring system to insure that those loads don’t gradually creep up to where they started.

Holmes, do you realize that if they can cut the Base Load by 50% by just shutting off equipment that isn’t required outside of production hours, they have just Reduced Their Annual Electric Costs by 25%?

Holmes: Amazing isn’t it Watson? And it’s no fluke. We have found similar opportunities in every project.

Watson: You’ve been doing this for 35 years while Utility Companies and EPA’s Energy Star Program have spent millions of hours and dollars building cumbersome processes requiring Benchmarking, Energy Audits, filling out forms and Capital Projects; methods that the Energy Star Website brags have “reduced energy use by an average of 2.4 percent per year”. Boy have they completely missed the real opportunity!

Holmes: Elementary my dear Watson. It’s just common sense coupled with valid scientific methods based on actual data.

As we said in our recent Blog “The Energy Profession Has it Backwards” (2), We’ve been installing Energy Monitoring Systems and using the resulting data to Tune-Up Building Energy Systems for as long as we have been in business. In our experience the best opportunities with the fastest paybacks always come from no-cost, low-cost changes, from matching the operation of the energy systems to the energy requirements of the facility; not from Capital Projects, not from Energy Audits, not from Benchmarking, not from Paperwork, and not from Layers of Bureaucracy!

Watson: And as we said in our Blog “There’s an Elephant in the Room” (3), no matter how simple or how sophisticated the energy systems are … The operating and maintenance personnel are the difference between success and failure; and to operate a building efficiently, operators must have actual Real-Time data presented in a clear and easy to understand format along with a strong incentive.

Why doesn’t everyone use utility meter data to match the operation of the energy systems with the energy requirements of the facility Holmes?

Holmes: That’s a really good question Watson. We have been tying into utility meters in every project since our very first one and I’m sure most people would assume that it’s a routine process that every utility company is familiar with. I’ve worked in hundreds of buildings and as hard as it may be for some to believe, I can’t remember a single building that had user-friendly access to real-time utility meter data when we started. I can only think of two that had access to utility data at all and it involved a fairly cumbersome process to access past data in csv files that required quite a bit of time to interpret. In both cases the plant engineers told me the data wasn’t very helpful to them.

Watson: With so many utility companies having gone to remote meter reading, it’s obvious they have the technology to read a remote signal from the meters. What’s involved in making that data available to a monitoring system so they owner can see it?

Holmes: It’s actually very simple but seems to be a very well-guarded secret, almost like the utility companies don’t really want anyone to do it. The basic process hasn’t changed since our first project where we tied into the electric, gas and water meters plus a deduct meter on the cooling tower. The utility replaces the dial on their meter with a head that produces a pulse proportional to the KWH, CCF or Gal that pass through the meter. A low voltage cable from the computer connects to screw terminals on the meter head, the computer counts the pulses and multiplies them times the meter constant. We show the Real-Time demand on the screen and accumulate the pulses to produce Historical Reports and Graphs that show consumption and demand every fifteen minutes, by day, week, month and year.

Watson: Why do you say it’s a well-guarded secret Holmes?

Holmes: Because not only have most utility companies never done it, they don’t know how. In nearly every job we have ever done, we have been the first to ask the utility company to furnish an external pulse for us to read. And in most cases, the response is “we have no idea how to do it, we’ve never been asked before.”

Just in the past couple of years we have had similar experiences in installations near Austin, Boston, Boise and San Diego. As a matter of fact, the head of the electric utility in Fredericksburg, Texas who was quite helpful, told us he had to contact the one man in the U.S. who knew how to give us the information we needed from the meters they use.

Watson: You would think that would be a routine service in 2014, the Information Age. And since in your experience it’s the single most valuable thing that utilities could do to help their customers reduce the amount of energy they use and they don’t do it, it makes you question whether utility companies really want to help their customers reduce their bills, doesn't it Holmes?

(1) Read "Where Do the Energy $$ Go in an Industrial Plant"

(2) Read “The Energy Profession Has it Backwards”

(3) Read “There’s an Elephant in the Room”

Tell us about your experiences, both good and bad with energy professionals, what has worked and what hasn’t. Send us your comments, thoughts and suggestions on how to improve our profession so we can all continue to learn from each other. Thanks – Holmes & Watson

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