Zero touch energy audit: Will it change the game?

What new energy efficiency technologies will change the game? I’d like to use this space on occasion to explore that question and get your feedback on companies that I profile.

This week’s company is FirstFuel Software, which it appears could make the conventional energy building audit go the way of the buggy whip.

FirstFuel ‘audits’commercial buildings from afar. No human ever needs to set foot in the building and no monitoring or measurement devices are installed on the premises, hence the audit is “zero touch.”

The Massachusetts-based company relies on a Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the Internet, and a proprietary algorithm to remotely analyze a building’s energy use. The program requires some data from the utility, but not a lot: the address of the building and one year of hourly interval electric and gas billing information. It combines this information with building characteristics mapped through GIS and high frequency weather and climate data.

After running all of the information through its algorithm, FirstFuel comes up with a series of specific recommendations to improve the buildings efficiency, the cost and the expected savings.

FirstFuel, which has financial backing from Battery Ventures and Nth Power, describes its work not so much as auditing, but as mining useful data to make sense of a building’s energy profile.

“We sell information. We provide the intelligence about the performance of buildings,” saidSwapnil Shah, co-founder and CEO, in an interview. Shah is the veteran of three software startups that have gone to IPO or acquisition: Open Environment, WebSpective Software and mValent.

FirstFuel’s work doesn’t end with the audit; the platform continues monitoring and measuring the building to see if the energy efficiency upgrades are working and how the building stacks up against other like structures. The information flows via a portal that serves as home to a relationship the platform attempts to cultivate between the utility and customer. The goal is to get the customer engaged and motivated about energy efficiency.

What’s interesting is the scale FirstFuel appears to offer. Many states have energy efficiency targets, some with financial penalties if utilities fail to make the grade. Meanwhile, theObama administration has set a goal to reduce energy use in commercial buildings by 20 percent over the next decade. Given that commercial buildings consume 20% of our energy, and there about five million commercial buildings in the US, how does a utility get to all of them in its territory with an on-site energy audit? How does it even decide which buildings should get priority because they offer the most bang for the buck?

Shah thinks FirstFuel’s platform offers the solution: “We can do hundreds of buildings in the time it takes to do one energy audit” Shah said.

The software is being tested in about 50 buildings.  A Department of Energy-funded project earlier this year evaluated the accuracy of the system against data from 50 submeters at a 312,000 square-foot LEED Platinum National Grid building in Waltham, Massachusetts. FirstFuel took about 19 hours to complete its zero touch analysis of the building and came up with results close to that of the submeters, according to the study, conducted by Fraunhofer CSE.

In another case study, FirstFuel analyzed the energy usage of five municipal buildings in Lexington, Massachusetts, and found ways to save 7.3% of the buildings $1.6 million budget with no investment required by the building owner. FirstFuel identified operational problems that if fixed could save energy without installation of any new equipment in the building. For example, lights were on in the building when no one was there and thermometers were not set at best temperatures.

So is FirstFuel a game changer? How will this technology affect the conventional energy auditing business? Please post your thoughts here. Thanks!

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work is available atwww.RealEnergyWriters.com

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