When asking energy efficiency software companies about their competition, the most common answer you'll hear is, "Well, we don't really compete with them," or "We may seem like them, but we're not really like them." 

Language certainly does matter in the new and evolving intelligent efficiency sector. But when it comes down to it, many of these companies are attempting to do very similar things with their software -- albeit with modest variations to the model.

At times, however, it's appropriate to pay attention to those seemingly minor semantic differences. And today, we may need to stop calling the Boston-based efficiency startup FirstFuel a virtual energy auditor.

Armed with $21 million in venture funding that has helped the company develop a new suite of services far beyond a simple audit, FirstFuel's CEO and founder Swapnil Shah now says the company calls itself a "demand-side Saas [software-as-a-service] analytics company."

It doesn't exactly have the same ring, but there are major implications for how FirstFuel grows the business.

This morning, FirstFuel is going public with a range of new offerings -- some of them brand new, some of them already in use behind the scenes -- designed to execute on efficiency projects in commercial buildings and help utilities monitor performance. 

For the last two years, FirstFuel has seen steady growth of its virtual audit service, which takes metering data, weather and other information about a building and creates an "inverse model" of performance. It then provides that data to utilities so they can figure out the easiest areas to target. FirstFuel says it has identified $250 million in low- or no-touch efficiency opportunities across its portfolio of commercial buildings.

However, identifying an efficiency opportunity is a lot simpler than doing something about it.

"We started realizing that the game is not just to help buildings understand what actions they can take -- the audit is a one-time event," said Shah in an interview. "The market is looking for an approach to efficiency that is more continuous and provides real savings, not just information."

Shah identifies one of main criticisms of virtual audits: they get more information into the market faster, but they don't necessarily do much to execute on an efficiency measure. (That's exactly what the small startup 5twenty pointed out as the foundation of its strategy in a story we wrote yesterday -- and this expansion from FirstFuel could have that company a little worried.)

To address this limitation, FirstFuel has now started working with efficiency service companies like Nexant and CLEAResult to implement energy conservation measures using its software service. In tandem, it has developed a project management tool that will help track performance and show utilities exactly how much they've saved. The utility customer only pays for savings, not for the information about savings potential. 

Shah said that by using a whole-building approach to analyzing a building, FirstFuel has seen a "single-digit" delta between estimated savings and actual performance. Traditionally in the commercial building space, that delta can be as much as 20 percent or 30 percent, making FirstFuel confident that it can provide the M&V tools utilities need to track efficiency in their service territories.

"For a utility to claim savings, it has to prove that those recommendations came from a utility-funded program -- that the actions were a result of a utility-funded program and were achieved. We connect all those dots," said Shah.

FirstFuel is now working with a handful of utilities and plans to be the go-to M&V platform for power companies trying to prove the effectiveness of their efficiency programs. This is likely a major reason why the European mega-utility E.ON led FirstFuel's recent Series-B venture round worth $8.5 million.

Last month, FirstFuel also added a new VP of products, Paul Baier, to oversee its expansion and manage product release cycles. Baier comes from Groom Energy and has deep knowledge about the crowded landscape of software vendors and the needs of energy service companies.

"We're super excited to get Paul on the team, as we move from a single product to a platform," said Shah. "He's got great enterprise software product experience along with a commercial buildings background."

(Full disclosure: Baier worked closely with Greentech Media on a research project while at Groom Energy.)

The evolution of FirstFuel is indicative of a larger shift in the industry. The vast majority of companies in the efficiency software space are providing simple dashboarding tools, an offering that is easy to produce and has lost its luster in the building community. As the market starts to mature, the startups that can prove actionable information -- not just a widget -- will gain traction.

"We often say, 'Analytics can’t change a light bulb.' We now see ourselves as a different category from before. We can't just say we're a remote auditor, because we're not just that anymore," said Shah.