Web-based system lowers energy costs

California Department of General Services

California is on the verge of significantly lowering energy costs in government buildings as its Department of General Services installs a system that enables building operators to use the Internet to remotely monitor and control energy use.

After the energy crisis in California, the state government initiated a conservation program encouraging employees to voluntarily save energy.

"People ran around buildings turning lights off, unplugging coffee pots, refrigerators and everything else," said Randy Ferguson, the Department of General Services' chief of energy management. The department oversees the operations and maintenance of scores of buildings. "We monitor probably about 40 different sites, and during the last year and a half, the average savings has been well over 20 percent consistently compared to the base year of 2000."

But manual efforts begin to lose their effectiveness over time. Officials estimated only half the potential energy savings were realized. Changing building operation procedures, they thought, could make savings permanent and stable.

So officials studied several electronic systems that monitored buildings and reported findings. Most of those systems were passive in nature, Ferguson said. "They'd give you information, but they didn't help you take specific direct action, and they didn't do it in a manner that was intelligently focused to optimize the solution for each building," he said.

However, the Intelligent Use of Energy system, developed by Cambridge, Mass.-based WebGen Systems, was different. The system uses an artificial intelligence program to track usage behavior so that energy consumption can be monitored through the Internet.

"We act based on forecasts; that is, the intelligent agents we create through [an] artificial intelligence program learn the habits of the buildings: when people arrive, when they leave, when they turn on air conditioners," said Paul O'Conor, WebGen's chief marketing officer.

In addition, the system receives weather forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration every 15 minutes. So if a cold front is approaching, the system, which emits a signal every two minutes, programs the building to adjust the temperature accordingly, he said.

Dozens of companies provide "sophisticated" programs to manage how buildings use energy, such as Honeywell International Inc. and Johnson Controls Inc., said Ritchie Priddy, an associate director with Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an international consulting firm that focuses on the energy industry. But WebGen stands out because of its "learning agent" or artificial intelligence component that learns the energy habits of building residents, he said.

During a two-year pilot project ending in June 2003, the state will eventually outfit about 40 of 65 buildings with the WebGen system. The department will study in-depth how the system worked, including infrastructure issues, problems, solutions and savings.

O'Conor said the system is fairly inexpensive to install, costing about 8 cents per foot. So for a 1-million-square-foot building, installation would roughly cost about $80,000. In turn, it can save about 12 percent of overall energy expenditures, he said.

So far, Ferguson said he's seen significantly better than average savings, even in buildings in which the conservation program is working well.

However, Ferguson said that the age and condition of a building's systems — including lighting, temperature, security and other infrastructure — can affect WebGen's performance. "To the extent that we have a very dumb building, WebGen is limited in what it can do," he said.

So the long-term approach, he said, involves retrofitting older buildings with better equipment and integrating WebGen or other similar systems into it.

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How it works

Web-based system lowers energy costs

WebGen Systems' Intelligent Use of Energy system lets building operators monitor energy consumption via the Internet.

1. The system connects to building management systems and energy consuming devices such as air conditioning units, lighting units, etc. If there is no building management system, devices can connect to the WebGen system via the Internet.

2. The building equipment and meters are mapped to the system's servers. Servers and intelligent agent software then process consumption data and provide energy-saving strategies.

3. Real-time metering, monitoring and control signals are sent through an encrypted Internet connection.

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