Greater energy efficiency relies on better information

IT leaders need to prepare for their new role in building a smart energy grid

The federal government is a heavyweight when it comes to power use. And like most lumbering ring-meisters, agencies are not particularly efficient or quick-thinking when it comes to conserving precious energy. They tend to waste much of it even when they put it to good use.

But the pressing problems of soaring energy prices and limited power supplies, combined with mandates from Congress, could soon turn Uncle Sam into a poster child for green buildings and smart power grids.

President Barack Obama included $4.5 billion in his economic stimulus plan to fund construction of a national power grid that would link electric utilities to computerized meters in houses and other buildings. Smart meters can provide much more specific data than the monthly aggregate reports traditional meters produce.

But even before Obama opened the government’s checkbook, agencies had a deadline of October 2012 to install smart power meters on many of their buildings. That deadline is part of the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 and the subsequent Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) that sets a target for the government to reduce its energy and other resource consumption by 30 percent by fiscal 2015.

Some of the government’s biggest landlords — including the military services and the General Services Administration, which owns many of the buildings that agencies call home — have crafted plans or already started to install smart meters and energy management systems. But like everyone else, they have a lot to learn as they work to meet the 2012 deadline.

The effort will be a massive undertaking for some government organizations. For example, the Navy is planning to install 12,000 smart meters at 40,000 facilities worldwide to meet the 2012 goal. To meet the 2015 target, it will install an additional 18,000 meters with another 2,000 at Marine Corps facilities.

But all that work should pay off. The Navy’s utility bill is about $1 billion a year, so achieving the goal of 30 percent savings would have a big impact. The Navy expects to recoup its $250 million investment in less than 10 years.

Initially, the meters will provide data to help agency officials get a better sense of their energy consumption and identify areas for savings. Eventually, those meters will connect to a two-way network called an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which will send the usage data to power companies to enable even greater gridwide efficiencies and savings.

It remains to be seen whether agencies’ information technology departments will have ongoing responsibility for the smart meters and energy management tasks. It will likely vary by agency, and some IT leaders might choose to take on those responsibilities, especially if they pay their own energy bills, which are typically an agency’s highest internal cost center.

At the very least, IT executives should expect to play a significant role in planning and deploying the new energy management infrastructure. They should also plan to get involved with securing the systems — especially given the recent news about hackers meddling with the country’s electric grid.

Power users’ plans

To comply with congressional mandates, agencies will have to do more than simply hang smart meters on their buildings. They will also need to install devices that can communicate with those meters, and those devices must do something with the data the meters collect.

"And then they have to figure out how to manage all of that,” said Anthony Erickson, global utilities industry leader at EDS.

Most of the savings from smart meters come from the ability to spot and eliminate unnecessary power use and other problems, such as idle computers left turned on or malfunctioning equipment.

Like the Navy, the Army also has a big job ahead of it, though the work is somewhat less than that of its seagoing cousin. Army officials expect to install about 6,700 smart energy meters by 2016. When counting meters to monitor gas, steam and water use, the total rises to 10,000.

Deciding which facilities should have smart meters has been challenging, said Stan Lee, chief of the Facilities Support Division at the Army Engineering and Support Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Under EPAct, agencies must install meters on facilities that spend $35,000 a year or more on electricity. But Army records don’t list how much energy a building uses. Instead, officials estimate that a building of 29,000 square feet will incur $35,000 in annual energy fees, but it’s not a proven rule.

Some large, unheated warehouse buildings may be taken off the metering list in preference to smaller buildings that are big energy users.

“The directorate at the local level will decide what buildings are metered,” Lee said. “They might decide that it’s better to meter a 15,000-square-foot dining facility than another 29,000-square-foot building.”

The ultimate benefit will come from analyzing consumption rates for certain building types — such as dining rooms, barracks or vehicle maintenance facilities — collecting that data and analyzing why some buildings use more energy than others. Officials could then come up with a baseline number for the energy every facility should consume.

“Then we can start developing enterprisewide solutions,” Lee said.

GSA, which manages thousands of government buildings, started installing smart meters on its properties in 2002, including many of the large federal offices in Washington, D.C. It’s been helping the city better manage its electrical distribution operations by reducing the use of power-hungry machinery during peak demand periods, among other strategies.

Building managers can only have that level of knowledge and control if they have smart meters, said Kevin Kampschroer, acting director of GSA’s Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings.

“We started in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas, then systematically expanded the use of smart meters to other parts of the country to not only help with power demand but also to enhance our overall management of buildings,” he said.

GSA officials plan to combine the smart-meter data with reports from other systems, such as door sensors and climate control equipment. That composite picture will be a big help to GSA, which faces what Kampschroer said is a nationwide dearth of highly qualified building management professionals.

Also, the ability to scale operations with smart meters and collect and analyze information at a central location could lead to a fairly dramatic net reduction in overall costs.

“When you tie 80 buildings together in that way, then it certainly takes some investment to meter them properly,” he said. “But given the improvement in building operations, you could see that expense paid back in just the first year.”

End game

Adding an AMI to link agencies’ smart meters to their power utilities will bring the government and the electric grid to the next level of efficiency. The smart meters will be able to upload the information they collect to the utilities, which will in turn send commands to the meters to generate even more detailed information when it’s needed.

Utility companies are always searching for ways to meet energy demands during peak periods, said Mark Burke, a market issue principal at international energy consulting firm KEMA.

However, until smart meters came along, there was no way to get detailed information about the timing of power demands. Traditional meters could only provide snapshots and aggregated information, and utilities would be forced to respond with similarly broad-based power reductions that would affect large groups of customers indiscriminately.

However, with an AMI and smart meters, utilities would have detailed information on power demands and load distribution, and they would be able to identify the precise location of power outages when they occur.

“An AMI tells utilities where and when the power and distribution system is in distress so they can reconfigure the network in real time,” Burke said.

Agencies can likewise monitor the quality of their energy infrastructure in fine detail, know where power dips occur and adjust their consumption accordingly, he said.

The AMI is a key component of the smart-grid plans outlined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Energy Department will use the legislation’s $4.5 billion to fund smart-grid demonstrations and development nationwide.

When that smart grid is built, the federal government is expected to move from being the single biggest energy consumer in the country to one of the biggest energy savers.

IT’s new responsibility

However, to achieve that goal, many agencies will need to change the way they operate. The walls that have existed between agency facilities managers and the IT department will likely need to fall.

The AMI will build on the existing network infrastructure, but at least some parts of it will be new, particularly the interfaces between utilities and smart meters. Agencies might need to invest in new servers and back-end systems, and security and data assurance will be a major issue.

Lee’s team at EDS has been working with the Army’s IT organization from the beginning, and they are jointly developing an IT management plan that will create new procedures and assign responsibilities.

Everything is in discovery mode right now, Lee said, but it’s already obvious that metering technology will not be the biggest issue. Maintaining network security and working through the contractual and jurisdictional issues with the companies who own the utility infrastructure at many Army bases are more challenging.

The Army is spending some $25 million a year from 2008 to 2012 on its smart metering program, and around $12 million to $15 million a year from then to 2016. Just $1 million of that will go to software, with the rest spent on installing the meters and securing them and the servers that collect meter data.

Kampschroer said he has worked with GSA’s chief information officer from the outset to establish the appropriate levels of security. Given the Internet access that smart-energy systems need and the overall network requirements for the AMI, IT people must be involved.

IT departments are typically not responsible for building-control systems, but as the government begins to rely more heavily on smart buildings, IT and facilities managers must understand each other’s area of expertise.

“The barriers are beginning to blur,” Kampschroer said.

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