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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

The City of Somerville should experiment with making the energy usage of municipal 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. Somerville 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 has already 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, the municipal government 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. Somerville should also consider new 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.

Furthermore, the City could also 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 correct 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 that by making such information publicly available on a frequent enough basis, the City would crowdsource the identification of fixable energy leaks in its buildings and energy waste by building occupants; heighten their awareness of their own 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.

Ultimately, the great potential in Somerville's interest in climate change is that the city can run experiments that could be studied, replicated, and scaled up elsewhere. This idea would be a prime opportunity to take advantage of it.

Note: Another proposal (available here:would make monthly energy use in every building public information. My proposal differs in several ways. First, the key feature is that it would make the energy consumption data available on a continuous, real-time basis (rather than with a monthly lag) to allow for immediate behavioral changes. Second, it explicitly focuses on crowdsourcing the identification of energy leaks, modeled after the GSA's experiences and with a potential reward or savings sharing component. Third, it proposes to make the energy consumption data easily accessible to the building occupants, not just the broader public.


Who will take these actions?

In terms of the legal policies required, the municipal government of Somerville would likely have to enact new city ordinances, the mayor might be able to implement the policies via executive action, or a combination of the two may be needed. Whether the City chooses to target municipal buildings or private sector buildings in addition (commercial or residential) would have to be factored into the legal analysis. In any case, Somerville officials would be expected to 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 City 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. The City 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.


What are the key challenges?

We know that commercial and residential buildings are a major source of industrial carbon pollution, accounting for approximately a third or more of greenhouse gas emissions. (In some urbanized areas, such as New York City, that portion may be as high as 75%.) Improving energy efficiency is thus a "low-hanging fruit" approach, especially given its widespread political support, the comparatively low cost of many proposals, the substantial carbon pollution cuts possible, and the large variety of steps that can be taken.

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 percent. In terms of individual buildings, the GSA's case study of the International Trade Center building in Washington, DC, is also instructive. After the assessment, the GSA adjusted the settings of the building's fans and saved $800,000 in just one year.


What are the 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 City of Somerville to experiment in order to produce policies and tricks that other cities could replicate and scale up.


What are the proposal’s costs?

The City of Somerville 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

Make monthly energy use in every building public information

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.