Making buildings more energy efficient isn’t just about more efficient air conditioners and lights, or smarter energy management software. Part of the challenge facing the green building sector is how to manage the massive amounts of data that come from building energy systems -- whether those are the HVAC and lighting systems themselves, or the people who use energy within them.
SPARC, a Charleston, S.C.-based software developer for government and commercial clients, says its new SPARC520 system can handle that big data challenge from the cloud. This week, it announced its first project with a big client, the U.S. Veterans Administration, which is using the SPARC520 as part of its “greening as a service” initiative to meet Obama administration mandates to reduce energy and resource use at federal agencies.
So far, the VA hasn’t said just where or how it will use the SPARC520 system across its portfolio of buildings, though it did announce Wednesday that it has used it to identify about $3.5 million in energy savings at its 700,000-square-foot, 11-story Washington, D.C. headquarters building.
According to CEO Eric Bowman, the SPARC520 approach covers the gamut of “smart building” efficiency functions, from initial building efficiency assessments using utility and property records, to going into the building and pulling data to figure out where energy is being wasted and how to save it.
We’re talking really big data here. For the VA headquarters building, SPARC has installed 107 clamp devices to meter electricity, water and natural gas usage, each collecting 27 different types of data every 10 seconds, Bowman said in a Wednesday interview. That’s 2,889 data points every 10 seconds, or about 2 billion data points per year, he said.
SPARC has built an engine, known as SPARC IQ, that can take those large sets of building sensor data and do in-memory, real-time analysis of it from its Amazon-cloud-hosted servers, he said.
“Is it real time? Not quite, but it’s close,” he said. The process involves a lot of use of cutting-edge technology in the open-source database realm, including use of a MongoDB document-oriented NoSQL database from 10Gen, and servers running open-source messaging protocol AMQP via RabbitMQ.
Essentially, these features allow such functionality as bringing incoming data into reports immediately, instead of via a batch process, and putting it in working memory so that operators can run energy “scenarios,” which model how building energy and resource use can change over time, in real time, instead of as a request that takes hours or days to process.
To put it in a way that a federal bureaucrat can relish, here’s the Wednesday prepared statement of Dr. David Paschane, director of strategic initiatives for VA’s National Capital Region: “The SPARC520 application is enabling us to easily coordinate the use of comprehensive data, and feed that data into multiple decision models among disparate offices. The discoverable strategic opportunities will make a big impact in our cost of doing business, and our ability to extend the use of other performance architectures.”
SPARC’s software engineers have been busy building these energy scenarios, based on different settings for building equipment, different efficiency retrofits and upgrades, and different behaviors on behalf of the building occupants, Bowman said.
These ideas aren’t unique to SPARC, of course. The data analysis and scenario modeling process sounds a bit like the whole-building modeling approach that’s been taken by SCIEnergy, a startup with deep data analytics that seeks to create digital replicas of how buildings consume energy to find insights that traditional building management technology can’t find.
On the front end, startups like FirstFuel and Retroficiency have been using existing meter and property data to do “hands-off” efficiency assessments of buildings. When it comes to in-building energy and water monitoring, startup Panoramic Power has brought wireless sensors like the generic ones SPARC is using to deliver power data from within the building.
Getting into the actual building controls side of things has been the realm of giants like Honeywell, Siemens, Johnson Controls and Schneider Electric and big IT partners like IBM and Cisco, as well as startups like BuildingIQ, Viridity Energy, Pulse Energy and many others in the smart building field.
SPARC doesn’t actually do any real-time building energy system controls, though it has integrated with a host of building management systems to feed data from its scenario analysis process into alerts and the like, all in the hopes of helping building operators find and fix resource-wasting processes while they’re happening, Bowman said.
At the same time, SPARC is experimenting with a set of scenarios that have more to do with getting the people in the building to save energy, he said. The company has built up a set of employee engagement tools, including SPARCet.com, meant to get workers communicating and interacting with one another in pursuit of organizational goals, whether it be improving sales performance or saving energy, whether via online contests between departments, mobile device apps that "push" energy alerts to employees, or other means.
Others are trying to modify people's behavior to save energy. Startup Lucid Design is using monitors that post energy stats and alerts inside commercial buildings to try to get occupants to change behavior. Startups like Opower, Simple Energy and Efficiency 2.0, in turn, are trying to influence the behavior of residential customers.
Bowman said that the VA is using SPARC520 at other sites, though he wouldn’t provide any more details. SPARC is also testing out its technology with other clients, in both data center and office-type settings, he said.
Founded in 2009, SPARC has been internally funded and employs about 200 people. Bowman declined to state how much money the company has raised to date or to discuss any financial details.