Las Vegas' casinos and hotels (not to mention its homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and everything else) suck up a huge amount of electricity for air conditioning. That drives a huge demand for peak power that's only growing -- summer afternoon peak power usage is expected to grow from about 5,600 megawatts in 2010 to nearly 8,000 megawatts by 2015.

Maybe BuildingIQ can help keep a lid on that growing demand for cooling power. On Tuesday, the San Mateo, Calif.-based startup announced a new partnership with NV Energy, one that will see the Las Vegas-area utility offer BuildingIQ’s efficiency and demand response services to its biggest commercial clients, including those power-sucking casinos.

BuildingIQ makes software and hardware that optimizes building air conditioning to save energy and shave peak loads, and has been piloting it in Australia, where its technology was developed with national research lab CSIRO. It has also partnered with French power giant Schneider Electric and San Francisco-based energy services company Syserco, though it hasn’t announced specific projects with either partner.

But its NV Energy project will be a very public test of the startup’s capabilities, which claim to provide energy savings of up to 20 percent to 30 percent without sacrificing comfort. The utility is targeting an annual 12.1-gigawatt-hour power use reduction through the program, or about the equivalent of taking a Manhattan skyscraper off the grid for a year, said Mike Zimmerman, BuildingIQ CEO. It’s also one of the first projects that will combine efficiency and demand response capabilities in a single platform, he added.

That’s not to say that demand response -- turning down peak power use -- and efficiency don't work well together. Big demand response aggregator EnerNOC also provides energy efficiency services for customers of utilities including Southern California Edison, and Honeywell’s automated demand response projects in the U.S., U.K., China and Australia also target energy efficiency as a natural progression of linking up building systems to power-down controls.  

Likewise, startups like Viridity Energy, as well as major vendors like Honeywell and Siemens, are bringing together energy efficiency and demand response capabilities.

But most of those utility programs are still marketed and administered separately, with efficiency dollars being doled out separately from demand response payments. The new NV Energy program, on the other hand, will be able to tap both BuildingIQ’s core efficiency offering and its DRIQ demand response offering from the same platform, Zimmerman said.

To get customers on board, NV Energy is offering incentives that will cover 100 percent of the BuildingIQ software subscription costs, Zimmerman noted. Customers will also get to keep all of the savings from reduced power bills, up to a certain target level, with the utility getting to share in savings beyond that, he said.

That’s a pretty hefty amount of utility support. Of course, North American utilities collectively spend about $6 billion and up per year on energy efficiency programs for customers, so it’s far from unprecedented either.

Most efficiency spending is driven by regulatory mandates requiring utilities to reach certain goals, or through mechanisms that otherwise allow utilities to make a business case out of spending money to get customers to buy less of their product.

At the same time, most utilities are far more concerned about reducing peak power demand than in helping their customers save power overall, making a program that can offer both a potential bonus from the utility perspective, Zimmerman said.

BuildingIQ’s software specifically targets HVAC systems, which means it can’t tap lights, elevators and other big building energy users. Still, HVAC is the single biggest energy user in most buildings, making it an important target for any efficiency effort.

NV Energy is no stranger to curbing air conditioner use for demand response. Its biggest program had 140 megawatts of residential and small commercial peak demand reduction signed up in 2010, and hopes to grow that to nearly 400 megawatts over the next several years. That’s according to UISOL, the software company bought by French grid giant Alstom, which is providing NV Energy’s demand response management platform.

On the residential side, NV Energy plans to have 1.4 million smart meters deployed by the end of this year, and is working with home control and automation company Control4 on a project to link at least 20,000 homes to demand response.