The U.S. has vast room for improvement when it comes to capturing energy efficiency in buildings, and the federal government knows it. We’ve seen billions of dollars in federal funds directed at efficiency projects across the nation, from smart grid and state efficiency stimulus grants to public-private partnerships like the $4 billion Better Buildings Challenge.

And then there’s efficiency that’s directly under government control. Federal agencies are mandated to reduce energy consumption in buildings by 30 percent by 2015, and to get there, the U.S. General Services Administration is key. GSA is essentially the federal government’s landlord, with 360 million square feet of buildings under management, and a commensurately large energy bill. That’s made it a key partner for building energy efficiency technology vendors across the nation.  

One of GSA’s more ambitious projects, launched this summer, plans to link 50 of the government’s highest energy-consuming buildings, comprising 31 million square feet, into an intelligent energy management network, from building sensors to enterprise-level management. IBM is the lead on the project, but it is working with various other consulting and technology providers, including SkyFoundry, Environmental Systems Inc. (ESI), Honeywell’s Tridium building controls platform and consultancy Intelligent Buildings.

It’s a noteworthy project on many levels, not the least in the scope of integration being undertaken. As lead contractor, IBM is pulling in its experience in sensors and data collection, as well as the building management software platform from its 2010 acquisition of startup Tririga, which already managed property energy and sustainability for big retailers and other property owners around the country.

Milwaukee-based ESI, which designs and manages building control and efficiency projects for retail chains, supermarkets and other big clients, is integrating SkyFoundry’s building software analytics and Tridium’s Niagara framework for building control networking inside the buildings themselves, Paul Oswald, ESI President, said in an interview this summer.

As for SkyFoundry, its building analytics software is now being used by partners to manage efficiency in more than 1,200 buildings, or about 15 million square feet, in the U.S. SkyFoundry partner and COO John Petze, who previously helped lead Tridium to its acquisition by Honeywell in 2005, told us earlier this month that the GSA project is “moving fast,” and has already yielded some preliminary results.  

There’s value to be collected from the data, beyond the $15 million in savings that GSA wants to achieve after the first year. First, the system will monitor energy use in each building to yield specific insights into efficiency potential. Next, it will stream the data from all locations to a central facility, where it can be used for various portfolio management functions, like assessing which structures could benefit the most from retrofits.

“We are at a tipping point in terms of advancing the greening of our buildings and making them smarter,” Bartlett, vice president of industry solutions at IBM, said in a statement.  “When you look at buildings holistically, with end-to-end visibility across all systems,  you can more clearly see the connections, the interactions, and opportunities for efficiency among the various systems. Using analytics, we can make better decisions about how to best visualize and optimize these systems.  The data exists -- it's a matter of understanding and responding to what the data is telling us, and that's what we're helping GSA to do.”

If the building analytics are successful in reducing energy use, the GSA would install the software in another 50 buildings, and the platform could eventually be extended to its entire building portfolio, according to reports. The platform could also be used to model best practices in building energy efficiency IT deployments -- the GSA is a proving ground of sorts for all kinds of different technologies, from LEDs to CHP.

Of course, tying the insight from smart building technology into real-world action requires putting a dollar value on the investment and return associated with the long list of spending options they can deliver. Simple lighting and insulation replacements only go so far, and as SkyFoundry’s Petze noted to us, “you can’t replace half a chiller,” meaning that worthwhile HVAC improvements often go addressed for lack of a business case to spend so much money upfront.

The government can access cheap, long-term loans to pay for efficiency upgrades with a longer-term payback than private building owners can. The GSA is also pretty sure it’s going to be owning the same buildings it’s investing in a decade or two from now -- something that’s not true in the commercial real estate world. Most efficiency experts say that commercial building owners and managers are demanding a 1- to 2-year payback on their investments, which has limited the market somewhat.

Even buildings that already have building management systems, or facilities that are always in use, have anomalies that can be corrected, Petze noted. Parking lot lights left on at night, HVAC units that heat and cool a building in turns, improper trigger settings that force equipment to turn on and off all the time, leading to early breakdowns -- all of these kinds of factors are awaiting in the data that projects like the GSA’s could yield.

Even if this is a one-off partnership with IBM, the scale of GSA could help open more of the private sector. “If the GSA can lead the way to make their buildings the most efficient,” Petze said, “it will help the many commercial buildings that have been more reticent.”